The PJ Tatler

Where Are the 'Healthy-Food' Lobbyists?

The food-lobbying industry is a big and powerful one,  especially under the Obama administration.

Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the food and beverage sectors have spent about twice as much on federal lobbying, on average, compared to the Bush and Clinton years, according to a review of the Center for Public Integrity spending database. And those figures do not account for tens of millions spent at the state and local levels to fight soda taxes and mandatory GMO-labeling ballot initiatives.

But the “healthy-food industry” does not have much of a lobbying force in Washington, D.C.  Legislation just passed the House that would block any attempt at GMO labeling in the states, so there is no shortage of food-related business the government is interested in corrupting. Many of these “healthy-food” companies advertise they sell non-GMO products — it seems they would have an interest in such legislation.

Of course, that’s not to say you can’t support the “healthy-food industry” and also oppose mandatory GMO food labeling. I do. But one thing we see quite often in politics is the Hobbesian war of all against all with little or  no regard for the principles at stake. After all the GOP, the alleged party of smaller government, just helped pass a law that removes power from the states to put labels on GMO food.  And thank you, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Rep. Tom Massie (R-KY), for rightfully opposing yet another freedom-crushing legislative monstrosity.

The purported necessity of fedgov involvement in the states’ business for this case is that there is “no evidence” that GMO food is dangerous or unhealthy so the government and its big money lobbyists want to stop the states from legislating on the issue. This is just an excuse for more nanny-state behavior from the government-overreach GOP crowd. Let the states decide if they want their GMO food labeled.

But the greater interest, that of the big food dollar, speaks volumes inside the District. So where are the healthy-food lobbyists with the some skin in the game?

Politico reports:

Yet neither Whole Foods; nor Chipotle and Applegate, companies that serve up antibiotic-free meats; nor Hain Celestial Group, which owns Arrowhead Mills, Spectrum and Celestial Seasonings, have a single registered lobbyist between them, according to a POLITICO review of disclosure records. Their involvement on Capitol Hill, on issues from the farm bill to nutrition labeling, has ranged from limited to nonexistent.

Instead of financing lobbyists, Applegate recently footed the bill for a documentary advocating for limiting antibiotics in agriculture. It hosted screenings across North America and then directed viewers to contact members of Congress. The company also hosted a special screening of the film, which is now on Netflix, for congressional staff last summer.

Applegate, valued at nearly $800 million, has never considered hiring a lobbyist, said Gina Asoudegan, Applegate’s director of mission.

The attitude seems to be that “healthy food” is winning the people over so if the industry can influence voters, there is no need to spend megabucks on lobbying. “Politicians react to voter sentiment,” said Asoudegan, who views much of the company’s marketing as consumer education. “Our job is to increase sentiment around certain issues.”

Perhaps. But most voters don’t vote on a single issue, assuming they even know if their representative does or does not support a particular issue. If these groups are going to rely on such a method, they’d better be prepared to spend a pretty penny letting voters know which politician stands where on what issue…at the very least.

Not everyone in the “healthy-food” industry supports such action-at-a-distance. Gary Hirshberg,  chairman of Stonyfield (delicious yogurt), would like to see companies get involved in the political arena.  “He watched as controversial genetically modified crops sailed through the Agriculture Department’s regulatory process ‘like a hot knife through butter’ and recalled thinking that nonprofits weren’t doing enough to fight back and that business needed to come to the table.”

“There’s a disconnect between the marketplace and D.C. … In the marketplace, we’re everything,” said Hirshberg. “A lot of folks are still very uncomfortable with the fact that you have pay to play — you have to be a force.”

I think the situation is best summed up here:

Dan Fabricant, CEO of the Natural Products Association and a former Food and Drug Administration official, said if organic and natural food companies think they can avoid engaging inside the Beltway because consumers love the sector, “that’s a really scary way of thinking about how D.C. works,” he said.

“On some level, there’s no peacetime here,” he adds. “Washington’s always at war.”

So guys, call me, you need some help in D.C.