“Big Food” Companies Spend Big Money in Hopes of Shaping the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

June 6, 2019 | 8:40 am
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

The maker of Snickers, M&Ms, and Skittles has built a global conglomerate on sugar. The privately held Mars Incorporated let it be known earlier this year that it hopes to double its $35 billion annual revenue over the next decade, reportedly through expansion in pet food and other areas. But for now, confectionery treats are a main business, which could be why the company spent more than $2 million, in 2018 and early 2019, lobbying Congress around the federal government’s nutrition advice, among other food policy issues. Of course, it’s also possible Mars has a more socially responsible motive, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Why the food industry cares about the Dietary Guidelines

In general, processed food and beverage companies have an intense interest in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s leading set of science-based nutrition recommendations. This federal dietary advice is revised every five years to reflect the best available science, and it informs healthy eating decisions for consumers and, most significantly, guides federal nutrition programs that serve millions of children, parents, seniors, and veterans every day.

The process to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is now underway. And while this is a rigorous process that tends to produce strong and relatively consistent guidelines (with some exceptions), that doesn’t stop the food industry from trying to influence them through various channels.

…and what companies hope the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines won’t say.

The disclosure forms lobbyists are legally required to file with the House and Senate every quarter provide a window into who is seeking to influence the Dietary Guidelines. But without being behind the closed doors of those meetings, we have to imagine what kinds of advice Big Food companies and their lobbyists would rather we didn’t hear from the federal government’s nutrition experts. Here’s some of the science-based recommendations I suspect many of Big Food’s lobbyists don’t want included in the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines:

  • Eat processed meat rarely. According to new UCS analysis of processed meat intake and colorectal cancer risk, that could mean something like half a hot dog per week—or for those of us who don’t eat hot dogs in increments, no more than one every other week. But such moderation wouldn’t be good for big meat processors and their lobby groups, including the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, Smithfield Foods, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, and the United States Cattlemen’s Association. Those groups collectively spent $4.5 million lobbying Congress on issues including the Dietary Guidelines during the two-year process of updating them for 2015. So far this cycle, the main processed meat player appears to be Hormel Foods Corporation, maker of the inimitable Spam canned meat, which has already plunked down $740,000 on such lobbying between January 2018 and March 2019.
  • Drink less soda. By our analysis, the government should consider lowering the Dietary Guidelines added sugar limit to reflect adults’ average calorie needs, and provide age-specific recommendations for kids. One good way to help people cut back on sugar and reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, among other conditions? Continue to recommend that people drink less soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. But soda makers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with their industry lobby group (the American Beverage Association, or ABA), spent a combined $23.8 million on related lobbying in 2014-2015. Since the beginning of 2018, the ABA has shouldered the burden, racking up $1.68 million in lobbying expenses, joined by Red Bull North America at $320,000.
  • For infants, breastfeeding is best. For the first time, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines will include recommendations specifically for infants and toddlers. Clear, science-based advice to breastfeed whenever possible would be a problem for leading infant formula-maker Nestlé S.A. (also the world’s largest food company). Known for its long, troubling history pushing formula on new moms, the company reorganized its infant nutrition business in 2017, listing the area as a priority for growth. Since the beginning of 2018, Nestlé has spent $1.58 million, at least in part, presumably, to ensure that growth isn’t hampered by the Dietary Guidelines.

So why are they lobbying Congress?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—and specifically, the secretaries of those federal departments—set the Dietary Guidelines, appointing a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to review the science and present them evidence-based recommendations. (Here’s a backgrounder on the process.)

Yet as that process was ongoing five years ago, food and beverage companies and trade associations were lobbying Congress aggressively. Quarterly disclosure forms filed by such groups during 2014-2015 show more than $77 million in lobbying activities directed at Congress, on issues including the Dietary Guidelines. (Note that it’s impossible to say exactly how much of that lobbying effort was specific to the guidelines, as lobbyists lump various issues on each quarterly disclosure form filed with Congress. But it’s the best indicator we’ve got.)

There’s a reason companies and industry groups expend time and money lobbying Congress, even when legislators aren’t officially the decisionmakers—because once in a while it works. Take the Dietary Guidelines sustainability debate in 2015. Then, the DGAC took a forward-looking approach, spelling out the sizeable environmental side benefits that healthy, plant-based eating can have, and recommending that the final Dietary Guidelines include that advice. Of course, that didn’t sit well with the meat lobby, and after they gave Congress an earful…sure enough, those recommendations disappeared.

(An intriguing development: After Congress essentially barred the prior administration from considering sustainability issues as part of the Dietary Guidelines, the topic list the agencies prepared for its new expert DGAC doesn’t include those issues, and DGAC members have been instructed that it’s not part of their charge. Still, some Big Food companies—including Mars and Nestle—are, surprisingly, advocating for consideration of the environmental impacts of our dietary choices once again. UCS is all for that, of course, as we said back in 2015, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.)

Who else is Big Food lobbying?

Of course, the food industry’s lobbying surely isn’t limited to Congress. It’s just that their visits to Capitol Hill are the only ones we can document easily, with publicly available, if imperfect, data as indicated above. It’s a reasonable assumption that many of these companies are lobbying Trump administration officials directly about the Dietary Guidelines, even though we don’t have documents to prove it. And these industries surely have a ready ear in the USDA and HHS secretaries. I think it’s fair to say that big corporations and industry groups of all kinds have no bigger friend than the Trump administration. Whether coal companies, oil companies, big automakers, pesticide makers, or big poultry conglomerates, this administration has rewarded them all, giving each more or less exactly what it has asked for.

Now to be clear, past industry lobbying hasn’t been able to substantially subvert the Dietary Guidelines, which have mostly remained strong and science based. But with the current administration, I’m more concerned. After all, former food industry lobbyists are now staffing the USDA through a revolving door that only sped up with the Trump administration. As USDA staff geared up for the Dietary Guidelines update early in the administration, they were led by former snack food and corn syrup lobbyist Kailee Tkacz (now the chief of staff to the USDA deputy secretary).

For the record, Tkacz herself lobbied on the Dietary Guidelines on behalf of global snack foods trade association SNAC International back in 2014-15 (SNAC spent $340,000 then). Now, her successors are making the rounds in Congress—SNAC has invested $440,000 just since the beginning of 2018.

What happens now?

As of now, it isn’t clear whether food industry lobbying—whether in the halls of Congress or directly with the Trump administration—will undermine the next Dietary Guidelines. For the moment, the scientific review is in the hands of the 20 experts on the DGAC, which will hold a series of public meetings (the next one on July 11-12) before presenting its recommendations to the USDA and HHS secretaries around the middle of 2020. What the agencies choose to include—or leave out—when they translate these scientific recommendations to a set of final guidelines by the end of 2020 may tell us if and how industry made its mark.

In the intervening months, it will be up to us, as eaters and taxpayers, to tell the administration they must resist industry lobbying, publish guidelines that prioritize public health, and invest in strategies to address systemic barriers to healthier diets. For more information, see our new report, Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines, and stay tuned for a comment guide you can use to weigh in.