These Big Food Companies Get Failing Grades on Political Spending Transparency | Civil Eats

These Big Food Companies Get Failing Grades on Political Spending Transparency

a bunch of tyson food products in a supermarket

Precisely what role do companies like Tyson, Nestlé, and Coca-Cola play in shaping policies that regulate junk food advertisements to children, maintain a low tipped minimum wage, and limit carbon emissions? No one knows for sure, including their shareholders.

While advocacy groups have long gathered evidence about to the ways the world’s largest food companies spend money influencing politics, back powerful trade groups, and fund research that makes it into mainstream discussions about food, just how much influence they really have in shaping food policy is notoriously hard to pinpoint, partially due to lax disclosure requirements on corporate spending.

According to Feed the Truth, a new organization aimed at addressing corporate control of the food system, this lack of transparency “means that corporations can sell us a family-, worker-, and environmentally friendly image even as they spend heavily to block policies that would improve public health, cut down on inequality and poverty, and help prevent the climate breakdown.”

Now, an index just released from the organization draws attention to just how much remains out of the public view—the spending left undisclosed by major food and agricultural corporations.

The Food and Agriculture Corporate Transparency (FACT) Index scores the world’s 10 largest food producers’ level of disclosure across four categories of spending: electioneering, lobbying, charitable donations, and the funding of scientific research. The corporations, selected based on highest reported 2020 revenue, were ranked from most to least transparent, as follows: the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Mars, ADM, Unilever, JBS, Cargill, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, and Bunge. The index specifically counts disclosure as publicly posting information on their websites, easily accessed by the public and investors.

Coca-Cola earns the relatively highest marks for transparency with just 39 out of 100 points, and it goes down from there, with Tyson Foods (the second-largest meat processor in the world) and Bunge (a massive agribusiness and ingredient supply company that many in the U.S. have never heard of) coming in at 3 and 2 points respectively.

Lucy Martinez Sullivan, the executive director of Feed the Truth, hopes that by sharing these low scores, her group can shed light on the gap between what these companies profess to do publicly and where their money is actually going.

“If these companies are going to be talking about what they see as priorities for private-sector engagement in food systems and really shaping the narrative and discourse around food, then they have a responsibility to be more transparent about how they are engaging in the policy process,” said Sullivan.

Civil Eats contacted Tyson Foods, Bunge, Coca-Cola, and Cargill for comment, but none had responded by press time.

Low Scores and a Lack of Accountability

Bunge and Tyson Foods, which are both publicly traded corporations, disclosed almost nothing about their political spending. In the lobbying and electioneering categories they both scored zero, indicating that they reveal nothing about money spent on these engagements.

“It’s really shocking that two publicly held corporations just do not put out any information for investors, shareholders, and the general public to be able to understand how they are using their power,” said Sullivan. Both companies earn upward of $40 billion dollars per year, granting them the potential for significant influence, noted Sullivan.

Even Coca-Cola, the highest scorer, does not have a good track record of accountable public spending. Earlier this year, an investigation by Popular Information revealed that the company funded 29 of the co-sponsors of Georgia’s voter suppression bills, likened to Jim Crow era laws, which were written to target Black voters. At the same time, the investigation found that, “Coca-Cola, through its Sprite brand, ran a series of ads prior to the 2020 election stressing the importance of voting in the Black community.”

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The lack of spending disclosure enables corporations to take public positions concerning the social good, while quietly financing opposing interests. This also makes for risky investments, a realization that Sullivan hopes will lead investors to push for more transparency. “It’s a brand liability. It’s a reputational liability, and therefore it’s a risk to investors,” said Sullivan.

Already, there is momentum among shareholders across industries to demand greater transparency, including pushing Tyson Foods to increase its disclosure on lobbying and labor practices. And as cited in the report accompanying the index, one of the world’s largest investors, Vanguard, recently warned of the financial and reputational risks of “poor governance of corporate political activity, coupled with misalignment to a company’s stated strategy or a lack of transparency.”

U.N. Summit in the Background

Feed the Truth released the index to coincide with the start of the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit, an event that is setting the stage for a larger summit that will be convened in September. As global leaders come together to develop commitments to reform how the world produces and consumes food, a separate conversation is underway about the level of corporate influence over the global food system, led by scientists, advocates, and Indigenous and peasant groups boycotting the event.

At the heart of the boycott is concern about the duplicity highlighted by the FACT Index. For instance, the summit included an event in which the CEOs of PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever, among others, convened to discuss their companies’ approach to solving hunger and malnutrition. And yet critics have long argued that the makers of soda and other highly processed foods often use philanthropy to advance their corporate agenda and deflect calls for government programs or laws aimed at reducing consumption of the foods they make.

And, ultimately, it’s unclear how food corporations’ representation at the U.N. Food Systems Summit squares with their spending in other countries, given that almost none of this is disclosed.

“The most notable thing is these truly global corporations don’t give any information for their international markets,” said TJ Faircloth, Feed the Truth’s program and research director. “Coca-Cola, as good as they do on some levels of disclosure, operates in almost 200 countries, but only [shares] information based in the U.S.”

Ashka Naik, the research director of Corporate Accountability, notes that while she finds the index to be “systematic and comprehensive” in its methodology, there are some forms of influence that it doesn’t capture, such as revolving doors with governments, recruiting corporate to advisory boards, and advertising.

Faircloth envisions FACT as an “inaugural index,” which he hopes to expand and refine in the future, including by improving their assessments of foreign markets. The index builds upon the Center for Political Accountability-Zicklin Index, which looks more narrowly at corporate spending on elections. FACT expands on this by including lobbying, philanthropy, and scientific funding, as within the scope of its analysis, while also narrowing the scope to food producing corporations.

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Over half of the food and agriculture corporations listed in the FACT index—PepsiCo, Unilever, ADM, JBS, Tyson, Bunge, and Mars—didn’t disclose any funding of scientific research. This can shield how major food corporations shape the field of nutrition and food science. Faircloth points to McDonald’s funding The Scripps Research Institute to study childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. “On paper it looks really great for the corporation, but then you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, this is a corporation that is a driver of childhood diabetes,’” said Faircloth.

An accompanying report to the index provides recommendations for how to increase transparency around corporate giving. This includes requiring the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) to require “political giving disclosures—including lobbying, charity, science, and indirect spending—across the jurisdictions in which these corporations do business.” It also recommends the U.S. Senate passing the “For the People Act” to improve campaign finance transparency; the bill already passed in the House of Representatives in March. Currently, the SEC does not require reporting on political activities; however, there are regulations that require quarterly lobbying reports and the mandatory disclosure of Political Action Committee (PAC) spending.

Lisa Graves, the executive director of True North Research and board president of the Center for Media and Democracy, was impressed by the index and its methodology. She points to the importance of accessible and public disclosures of the corporations’ lobbying activity at the state and federal level. “[This] would be important to be made publicly available, easily findable on the website, versus relying on someone to go through state by state to decipher it,” said Graves.

Of course, improving transparency is only the first step to curbing corporate influence over the global food system. “Greater transparency of political spending is surely necessary and the lowest hanging fruit for greater corporate accountability,” wrote Naik, in an e-mail. “That said, we must be vigilant that such indices are not exploited by corporations to sugar-coat their progress on real accountability.”

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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  1. Ivan Kinsman
    For anyone wanting to read more about the food producers' influence on politics, I suggest you take a look at Professor Marion Nestle's research, particularly her groundbreaking book on the subject, 'Food Politics: How the industry Influences Nutrition and Health'

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