When it comes to money-fueled influence peddling, few special interest groups rival the sugar industry, which according to the Heritage Foundation has spent some $50 million over the last five years to preserve its near-monopolistic stranglehold on the U.S. market. A pretty sweet deal, eh? In a time when the president decries money in politics and “greed,” it’s the kind of investment that would make Gordon Gekko blush.
Sugar money pours into campaigns and PACs, and hundreds of millions pour back in direct “expenditures” to these very same companies, while consumers get shafted with sugar prices that are double what they would be in a more competitive market.
But wait — this apparently isn’t enough for the sugar barons.
Documents released just days ago in U.S. federal court — part of a lawsuit in which the sugar industry accuses high fructose corn syrup companies of running a misleading advertising campaign — reveal a multi-year effort by The Sugar Association to drive food and beverage companies away from its arch-rival, high fructose corn syrup, and back to beet and cane sugar.
In other words, when policy makers and the American public correctly became concerned in recent years about the role of excessive sugar consumption and the rise in obesity and diabetes, the sugar industry had a ready response: point the finger at high fructose corn syrup.
All’s fair in love and war, you say? True enough — one huge industry attacking another isn’t something to get teary-eyed about. But even by hardball-standards, the sugar industry takes the cake. The documents show that as far back as 2003, The Sugar Association hatched a secretive, sophisticated campaign to fund phony consumer groups, generate consumer alarm, and promote flawed science critical of HFCS that their own scientists believed was bogus.
For example, in an email to Sugar Association president Andy Briscoe, the association’s chief science officer advises, “The data in the HFCS study are so illogical and incoherent it’s recommended that we neither cite nor issue any public comment … No more time will be spent on this politically motivated propaganda as we have more important issues to address.” Yet, apparently Briscoe and his association rejected that advice and promoted the study, anyway.
It gets worse.
Previously released documents show that The Sugar Association gave the sketchy consumer group, Citizens for Health, more than $300,000 to attack HFCS. It turns out that CFH is actually run out of the DC-law firm Swankin & Turner, which houses several purported “consumer groups.” Currently, CFH is flogging a petition into FDA urging the agency to crack down on HFCS. One can only imagine how many of the people who signed the petition realized it is all a put-up job by the sugar industry.
From there, The Sugar Industry went on to sue the HFCS industry, which a federal judge in California has already declared a SLAPP suit, essentially meaning its primary purpose is to silence and harass the other side. It gets uglier and uglier, but you get the picture.
But, before I go on, let me be clear about one thing: I could care less about the high fructose corn syrup industry. I’m no fan of the federal subsidies its corn suppliers enjoy, nor do I care for its cousins in the ethanol industry, which have also received billions in taxpayer dollars.
But I know a shakedown when I see one. So, let’s be clear about what all of this is about. As the previously referenced Gordon Gekko once said: “It’s all about money. The rest is just conversation.” Or, as Adam Fox, an attorney for the Sugar Association told a Los Angeles TV station this week, “We’re easily talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.” Ah, ha! Promoting flawed science, paying front groups, filing lawsuits — like almost everything else in heavily subsidized industries, it’s all about the Almighty Dollar.
It would be nice if these subsidized industries were chasing consumer dollars, but they aren’t; they’re chasing ours. Again, a pretty sweet deal.
So, let’s put all of this together. The beet and cane sugar industry, not satisfied with a lavish federally-supported system that guarantees them market share and profitability, funds operatives and law firms to attack another U.S. industry. Is this what the legion of congressman on the receiving end of sugar industry political donations truly want: for $2 billion in extra costs to consumers to be used to pay trial attorneys and front-groups to disparage another product?
There is a charade that takes place at least once a year — and it’s happening right now — which is the thin parade of “small farmers” the sugar lobby deploys to cover up the fact that the people really calling the shots are the huge sugar barons of Florida (*wink, wink*). One would think that with the enormous fiscal pressures on Congress and the president that the sugar industry would be on its best behavior and not tempt fate by converting the profits it enjoys via the sugar program into smear campaigns against other sweeteners. But it is the sugar industry, after all, and far too many politicians are hooked on their sweet, sweet cash for them to have to worry.