Op-ed: We Need to Get Food Industry Dollars Out of Politics to Save Our Democracy

A new report pulls back the curtain on how the $1.1 trillion food industry uses trade associations to block public health measures and harm frontline communities and workers of color.

A photo of a bunch of soda cans from above, representing big food and junk food

While tens of millions of Americans are struggling to put food on the table and pay their bills, many of the world’s largest food corporations are lobbying against one of the most powerful tools we have to fight hunger, poverty, and racial inequality: raising the minimum wage. Corporations such as Pepsi and McDonald’s invest heavily in promoting their concern for essential workers and initiatives to “empower” communities of color, yet they hide behind trade associations like the National Restaurant Association, which is fighting tooth and nail against the Raise the Wage Act currently being considered by Congress.

The National Restaurant Association (the lesser-known NRA) is just one of roughly 6,300 IRS-classified food trade associations that are part of a deep and powerful ecosystem of influence-peddling—a Big Food swamp, if you will. These well-funded groups are bending democracy to the will of corporate interests, and it’s not just the minimum wage that’s at stake.

As food and agriculture trade groups continue to buy influence and access in Washington, D.C., the health of our country—and that of our democracy—is suffering. A staggering 40 percent of American adults are obese thanks to an overabundance of ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages made cheap by agriculture subsidies for commodities like corn and soy. Federal farm subsidies—which increased by $24 billion in 2020—continue to buoy global conglomerates including Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Bayer, as America’s family farms decline by the thousands each year.

And yet, the trade groups that shape our food system—and help the companies exert super-sized political influence on federal policy while steering clear of culpability—haven’t always been easy to track. Until now.

At Feed the Truth, the newly launched organization I helm, we’ve just released a report that shines a light on how the $1.1 trillion food industry uses trade associations like the NRA to do the dirty work of blocking public health measures, stripping frontline food workers of health insurance amidst a pandemic, and blocking regulations designed to protect a predominantly Black, Latinx, and immigrant workforce.

According to our research, over the last decade the largest 20 food industry trade groups spent over $300 million on federal lobbying and almost $34 million in political donations. Just three groups—the NRA, the American Beverage Association, and the Consumer Brands Association—accounted for almost half of the lobbying spending. In the 2020 election cycle alone, the entire agribusiness industry spent $186 million on campaign contributions, nearly four times more than the defense industry, and on par with the oil and gas industry.

As part of the scramble for COVID-19 economic relief, food and agriculture trade groups made sure that national restaurant chains including T.G.I. Fridays and P.F. Chang received big bailouts, while close to 20 percent of smaller dining establishments closed permanently. Lobbying done by the North American Meat Institute and its members resulted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture granting large meatpacking corporations and processing facilities permission to increase their production-line speeds which, in turn, contributed to the increased spread of COVID-19 among meatpacking workers and in their broader communities.

Our analysis also found that more than 80 percent of the lobbyists for the top three food trade associations are “revolvers,” or individuals who move between working for federal agencies and lobbying those same agencies on behalf of industry. Perhaps the most prominent revolver is Tom Vilsack, Biden’s recently confirmed secretary of agriculture. After his last term as ag secretary under the Obama Administration, Vilsack spent four years at the head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a powerful dairy industry trade organization. Now, he’ll once again be in charge of overseeing the dairy industry, as well as many other food industries.

These trade groups have also spent big on the lawmakers who are most likely to influence their industries. Case in point: they donated nearly half a million dollars ($458,000) in support of former Representative Collin Peterson, (D-Minnesota), who led the House Agriculture Committee from 2007 to 2020, and $250,000 on Representative David Scott (D-Georgia), the new Chair of the House Agriculture Committee. This matters because these committees play an outsized role in shaping the trillion-dollar farm bill.

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Lobbying by industry trade groups isn’t just a food industry phenomena, of course. Corporate cash is corroding democracy, and the pay-to-play system we have in America is mostly benefiting the wealthy, white, and well-connected. In the words of the former CEO of food giant Unilever, Paul Polman, the vast sums of money flowing into influencing elections and policies have “brought the U.S. political system to the point of legalized corruption.”

Recent events in our nation have put corporate political spending in the spotlight. The top 20 food trade associations profiled in our report contributed more than $6.2 million to the Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the results of a free and fair election—more than they spent on those who voted for it. While corporations like Pepsi and McDonald’s pledged to pause political giving in light of the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill, the trade associations they fund have remained conspicuously silent.

We are calling on corporations to put a permanent pause on political giving, and for the biggest food industry trade groups to open their books and publicly disclose who they represent, what issues they are lobbying on, and how much money, in full, they are contributing to political campaigns. This is an important first step in reducing the influence of money in U.S. politics. Though this will take political resolve that previous administrations and congresses have failed to muster, the case for change is mounting.

There is growing momentum to realize a democracy—and a food system—that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Putting America’s food policy in the hands of the world’s largest food corporations and their trade associations ensures that corporate profits are prioritized over public health and well-being.

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This must change. Reform is urgently needed to curb the industry’s political influence and restore control to the public whose lives and livelihoods depend on a safe, healthy food supply.

Lucy Martinez Sullivan

Lucy Martinez Sullivan is the founding Executive Director of Feed the Truth. Read more >

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  1. Joy Jurena
    There is a way to raise the minimum wage that will also start fixing our defacto healthcare system.

    No more Employee Sponsored Health Insurance ESI
    The only way to do it is with a raise to all employees equivalent to the Employers contributions. The average of that amount is about $14,000 (2019).
    No other country does this and it hurts anyone who loses their job. Think about co-vid. We can then reconstruct healthcare to a real system. A major change should be an expert decision making entity of those in the healthcare fields. It must be Lobby Free. It would be for medical issues. primarily physicians. And they would work with state associations of physicians to determine what services are basic and what the prices are. This can be done and should be done. Our healthcare system is out of control.
  2. Susie O'Keeffe
    Great Article, Thank you. However, the multibillion dollar aquaculture industry, and its factory farming of fish either in net pens or in partial RAS, needs to be added to the list of the toxic, socially and ecologically destructive industries that create contaminated foods.

    From the destruction of local fishing sources, cultures and livelihoods, primarily through the obliteration of forage fish for fish meal, to the pollution of the seas and bays, and the creation of highly contaminated fish, this industry is only another manifestation of factory farming that has concentrated power and money in the hands of a few. Its consequences and impacts are being glossed over, ignored and covered up.

    While the industrial takeover of fishing has completely devastated the oceans, Big Aqua likes to sell itself as an alternative, but it is yet another factory farming scheme that is ecologically and culturally devastating, and the fish it creates are filled with toxins.

    We don't have time to not call out this industry for what it truly is, and to dismantle it. Local, community-based regenerative fishing and aquaculture, coupled with restoration of the Aquatic Commons is a viable alternative that is already successful.

    For healthy, democratic and ecologically restorative food to become a reality, the PEOPLE as independent individuals must control and create the food, NOT multibillion dollar industries, and their billionaire board members.

    Big Aqua, like all corporate controlled food systems, moves us closer and closer to complete tyranny no matter how sexy their PR, and no matter how many Big Enviro groups slip between the sheets with them.

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