Fair fight? Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich reports that Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and the National Restaurant Association spent a combined $15.4 million as the top three spenders on lobbying efforts in 2014. In contrast, the Organic Trade Association, one of the few organizations in the Good Food industry with a registered lobbyist, spent a paltry $189,000.
Plenty of wonderful organizations (in our opinion) are working with Congress to get good and healthy food into our school lunches and other nutrition assistance programs, but this new wave of food companies is lagging far behind “Big Food” when it comes to lobbying efforts.
As if to flesh out a one sided storyline, Bottemiller Evich give us the protagonist of “Good Food” (those companies that are generally working in the sustainable food world, like Whole Foods, Wholesome Wave, and Chipotle) to play opposite the dastardly and oft-maligned antagonist “Big Food.” We've often covered corporate Big Food spending on lobbying over the past year and a half. One of the biggest examples was the huge amount of money the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) spent opposing state GMO labeling laws ($22 million in Washington State in 2013, and over $15 million in CO and OR in 2014).
Why isn’t the organic sector “stepping up?” It seems, according to Bottemiller Evich, that the entrepreneurial spirit of smaller, independent healthy food companies, combined with a latent trust in market forces, has these newer and more sustainably minded food companies eschewing “playing ball” the old way on the Hill. Their general sentiment is to let the marketplace decide, but Sam Kass, former White House food policy champion, explains that this strategy may not be enough...
The place where we’re doing really well is the cultural side,” Kass said, pointing to huge shifts in consumer preference in the market. “But we’re going to continue to hit our heads against the ceiling until more people get politically engaged.”
Citing the passage of the DARK act in the House (a bill to severely limit GMO labeling), Bottemiller Evich explains that that the industry could miss out on mounting a Silicon Valley-style approach to influencing Congress that would help the industry:
The gap between the growth in the market and who’s playing ball in D.C. could be a challenge for the greater food movement and segments of the industry that could benefit from certain federal policy reforms, such as banning certain antibiotics from meat production, more organic research and subsidies and the mandatory disclosure of the use of genetically modified ingredients.
The supply of organic food in our country cannot keep up with the demand, perhaps suggesting that government intervention might be needed to increase organic production.
Chase Purdy of Politico’s Morning Agriculture notes that consolidation may be another reason that the Good Food industry isn’t flexing its Washington muscles. Often, when they do well, a Good Food company is purchased by a bigger, more globalized conglomerate—like Odwalla and Coca-Cola, or Cascadian Farm and General Mills. This more than likely puts the kibosh on concerted supporting policy that would potentially decrease the bigger companies’ bottom lines. Quoting an expert, Purdy explains.
Philip Howard, a professor at Michigan State University who tracks acquisitions and consolidation in the industry, said he thinks the buy-ups will continue as Big Food scrambles to adjust products to meet shifting consumer preferences. But often, the parent companies “don’t have that same commitment to organic as these pioneering organic brands, so they’re not going to be interested in lobbying on those ideals,” he said.
That’s not to say that the success of Good Food will turn it all over to Big Food. Ben and Jerry’s, now owned by Unilever, is a great example of a once artisanal company standing up against GMOs. Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield Farms is doing the same.
The organic food industry is growing like crazy, and consumer demand is not showing any signs of stopping. Whether or not a voice emerges in Washington to support Good Food policy and unify the “good food” forces, we can be sure that the food movement will stay at the forefront of national policy.
Image via Flickr
‘Good Food’ vs. ‘Big Food’ via Politico
‘Good food’ industry eschews lobbying via Politico Morning Agriculture