UPDATE: Feb. 26, 2021: This story has been updated with reaction from the American Beverage Association.
- The 20 top food industry associations have contributed $33.7 million to federal candidates since 2007, with three of them — the National Restaurant Association ($5.5 million), Consumer Brands Association ($1.3 million), and American Beverage Association ($1.2 million) — accounting for almost 25% of the total, according to a report from nonprofit Feed the Truth.
- The organization also found that since 2008, these 20 groups spent $303.2 million on lobbying federal agencies and lawmakers. The Consumer Brands Association ($60 million), American Beverage Association ($41.8 million), and National Restaurant Association ($38.4 million) accounted for almost 50% of these lobbying dollars.
- Feed The Truth, which was started by Kind founder Daniel Lubetzky, called for changes to protect consumers, including ending the “revolving door” between government and industry; preventing officials hired by the Biden administration from having affiliations with trade organizations or major food companies; and preventing members of Congress from accepting campaign contributions from industries they regulate.
The Feed The Truth report doesn't hold back on trade groups it claims spend big money donating to political campaigns or lobbyists to promote their causes on Capitol Hill while also allegedly putting consumers at risk.
The 41-page report went into detail on the political activity of the National Restaurant Association, American Beverage Association and Consumer Brands Association, outlining their stance on various legislative measures, top financial corporate backers within their respective industries, key leadership and their employment backgrounds, and the top recipients in Congress of industry cash.
"The food industry seeks to conceal the depth of its influence by funding multiple trade associations that market misleading information under the guise of consumer empowerment while using its vast resources to shape policy," the report said. "This study unmasks how a handful of the world's largest food corporations bankroll a few of the country's largest trade associations to bend our democracy to their will."
Trade groups were quick to depend their lobbying efforts and meetings with members of Congress.
William Dermody, a spokesperson with the American Beverage Association, said spending time with lawmakers allows the group to inform them of the work it is doing on issues like sustainability or reducing the number of calories people get from beverages through product innovation and marketing.
“We believe companies need to meet with lawmakers to discuss matters that are important to them and provide our perspectives and expertise," he said.
In a statement, Andrea Woods, a spokesperson with the Consumer Brands Association, said the report "repackages publicly available information on an association that is no longer in existence." The Grocery Manufacturers Association changed its name to the Consumer Brands Association last year, with an aim to better represent all of its members.
"Uniting the entirety of the CPG industry behind a pro-consumer, pro-growth agenda was central to launching the Consumer Brands Association in 2020 and is a cornerstone of our recent momentum," Woods said. "Consumer Brands is focused on fixing the recycling system, making supply chains more efficient and engaging consumers with the information they need to make informed decisions. We’re proud of our industry and excited about our agenda.”
Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said the group has had "ongoing engagement with policymakers across the political spectrum on how best to preserve and rebuild our industry." He said its "political action committee provides financial support for elected officials who support an agenda that will advance restaurant operators and their employees."
Regardless of the allegations, spending on lobbyists and political contributions have long come under fire in Washington, whether it's in food or other industries like defense or environmental regulations. Feed The Truth aimed to show the size of the food industry's influence when it compared its spending with that of the energy and natural resources industry, which contributed approximately $195 million during the 2020 election cycle. And in the same period, the food industry contributed about four times more than the defense industry to political committees.
In the case of political contributions, there is growing evidence that the current climate is discouraging companies from donating money. A review by Food Dive of political groups representing the United States' largest food and beverage companies last fall found they donated far less money during the election cycle to Republicans and Democrats, as well as to the industry trade organizations that lobby on their behalf.
In January, several food companies including Coca-Cola, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods and Archer Daniels Midland announced they suspended political donations in the wake of the violent protests at the U.S Capitol. Still, even if companies may be less willing to donate money to political candidates, it doesn't mean they are content to just sit on the sidelines. The Capitol protests and last summer's Black Lives Matter movement showed companies are more willing to speak out on issues.
With consumers looking at the values of the companies they purchase goods and services from to make sure they align with their own beliefs, food and beverage manufacturers are left to balance the interests of those who buy their products with those who work in Congress or lobby on their behalf — a big challenge for multibillion-dollar corporations when the causes don't always align.