As public concern about obesity and nutrition has increased, the food and beverage industry has worked tirelessly to avoid any additional regulation of its practices. Most recently, legislation to restore the Federal Trade Commission’s power to restrict junk food marketing, update school food standards, and mandate nutrition information on chain restaurant menus have all been introduced but none have been successful. Among others, the American Beverage Association, National Restaurant Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association and the National Automatic Merchandising Association work to hold on to their ability to have their members rather than the government monitor their business practices. The industry and its trade associations use their political muscle to shift the decision-making process away from Congress and the President and into their own hands.
To help achieve this outcome, during the 2006 Congressional election cycle, the food and beverage industry contributed more than $3.5m to Democrats and nearly $7.5m to Republican federal candidates (from both PACs and individuals). In 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the food and beverage industry has already contributed more than $2m to Democrats and more than $3m to Republicans.
|The top twenty food and beverage industry
political donors 2008
Presidential Candidates and the Food Industry
In the 2008 primary campaign, Senator Clinton has been the top recipient of money from the food and beverage industry ($689,378); Senator Obama ranks fourth ($216,273), and Senator McCain, sixth ($114,600), as of February 11, 2008.
As obesity rates continue to climb and as we near the presidential election, it’s critical to examine how the three remaining Presidential candidates have responded to the food industry’s political agenda to avoid government oversight.
The “Cheeseburger Bill,” known officially as the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Acti in the House and the Common Sense Consumption Act in the Senate, would protect food companies from being sued by individuals for weight gain. It passed in the House in 2004 and 2005, failed to pass in the Senate but has garnered more co-sponsorship support than perhaps any other federal food-related bill. Republicans have been the main backers of the Cheeseburger Bill. Neither Senator Clinton, Senator McCain nor Senator Obama has supported any version of this bill.
The majority of the bills to further regulate the food and beverage industry go through the Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. None of the three candidates sit on this committee. Other health-related bills fall under the jurisdiction of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HeLP) committee. Both Senators Clinton and Obama are members of this committee. An examination of their committee work and the bills they have co-sponsored can provide a window into these candidates’ perspectives on multiple health-related issues.
Perhaps the bill with the most momentum this year (although it ultimately died) was Senator Harkin’s bill (S.771) to revise the definition of “foods of minimal nutritional value” which would further regulate competitive foods sold in schools, at any time of day. Senator Clinton supported this bill along with 27 of her Senate colleagues. Senator McCain and Senator Obama did not cosponsor this bill.
Below is a table showing how the three main candidates chose to sponsor or cosponsor additional selected obesity-related bills in 110th Congress. Some of these bills would work to further regulate the food and beverage industry. For example, one element of Senator Harkin’s Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention America Act (S.1342) requires some restaurants and vending machines to provide nutritional information about each food available for purchase.
2008 Presidential Candidates sponsorship and cosponsorship of obesity-related bills in the 110th Congress
|Bill #||Bill Title||Clinton||McCain||Obama|
|S.2066**||A bill to establish nutrition and physical education standards for schools(aswell as other food issues)||N||N||Y (sponsor)|
|S.1432||A bill to amend the Food Stamp Act of 1977 and the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to improve access to healthy foods, and for other purposes.||Y||N||N|
|S.2173||A bill to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to improve standards for physical education.||N||N||N|
|S.651||A bill to help promote the national recommendation of physical activity to kids, families, and communities across the United States.||Y||N|
|S.2066**||See above||N||N||Y (sponsor)|
|Funding and Research|
|S.1068||A bill to promote healthy communities.||Y||N||Y (sponsor)|
|S.866||A bill to provide for increased planning and funding for health promotion programs of the Department of Health and Human Services.||Y||N||N|
|S.1067||A bill to require Federal agencies to support health impact assessments and take other actions to improve health and the environmental quality of communities, and for other purposes.||Y||N||Y (sponsor)|
|S.1172||A bill to reduce hunger in the United States.||Y||N||Y|
|S.1753||A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide a tax credit to employers for the costs of implementing wellness programs, and for other purposes.||N||N||N|
|S.1342||A bill to improve the health of Americans and reduce health care costs by reorienting the Nation’s health care system toward prevention, wellness, and self care.||N||N||N|
Source: THOMAS, Library of Congress.
**Although Senator Obama did not support Senator Harkin’s bill to update school food standards, he did sponsor S.2066. This bill would also update standards for competitive foods sold in schools. Standards would be consistent with recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine’s Report Nutrition Standards for Food in Schools. It is stalled in the Ag, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and has no cosponsors.
In a previous Congressional session, Senator Clinton spoke about her concern for media’s effect on children. On March 8, 2006, she explained her support for Children and Media Research Advancement Act (S.1902):
The bill I introduced with Senators Lieberman, Brownback, Santorum, Bayh, and Durbin included pilot projects to look at the effect of media on young children, and to look at food marketing and obesity. Although those projects were not included in this manager’s package, I continue to be very pleased with the bill. It’s a step forward for children. And I look forward to working with my colleagues in other venues to ensure that the pilot projects get done.
None of the candidates have cosponsored Senator Harkin’s Menu Education and Labeling (MEAL) Act, requiring, among other practices, nutrition information on chain restaurant menus.
Junk Food Marketing
Commonsense Media posed the following questions on junk food marketing to the presidential candidates.
Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in this country. The latest research suggests that junk food ads are a major contributing factor. Would you support legislation to regulate the type of foods that could be advertised during children’s programming (similar to laws considered in Australia and the United Kingdom)?
Senator Clinton’s response:
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report released this year, “Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States,” a committee convened by Institute of Medicine found that “television advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests, and diets, of children under age 12 years and is associated with increased rates of obesity among children and youth.” That’s why, according to the report, policymakers in Great Britain have banned ads for foods high in fat, salt, or sugar in programming aimed at children under 16 years of age and have prohibited the use of premiums or children’s characters in food ads to young people.
In the United States, we are going in the right direction: In December 2006, 10 of the top food companies in the country announced a new Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative that includes a commitment to devote at least 50 percent of all advertising to healthier foods or to messages that encourage fitness or nutrition. I believe there is more work to be done. I would like to see the entire food industry come together to develop voluntary guidelines that take their responsibility to children seriously. I think that there are a lot of steps that the private sector and the public sector, working together, can take to curb marketing and availability of unhealthy products to our children. In the Senate, I co-sponsored the Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act — which passed in the Senate — to address obesity and eating disorders in children, and I introduced the School Food Fresh Program that links schools with local farmers to bring healthy locally grown snacks to schoolchildren. When I am president, I will continue to explore these options and support measures to put our children on a path to healthy living.
As I mentioned earlier, I championed the Children and Media Research Advancement Act to study the impact of electronic media on child development. This bill provides targeted funding to research the links between advertising and childhood obesity. Since 1980, the proportion of overweight children has doubled, and the rate for adolescents has tripled. We have to understand the relationship between advertising and obesity if we are to build the public will to take action.
And Senator Obama responded:
We’re never going to be able to shield our children from all the potentially bad influences out there. And it would be counterproductive to just build walls that shield them entirely. Our best hope is to educate our children and give them the information and the tools they need to make wise choices. Our children are bombarded by all sorts of messages all the time. If it’s not from television commercials, it’s from somewhere else. We need to teach them how to sort out these messages. I question whether legislating to control certain types of advertising is going to help our children in the long run. I think there are other, helpful steps we can take to reduce childhood obesity. A generation ago, nearly half of all school-aged children walked or biked to school. Today, nearly 9 out of 10 children are driven to school. And once there, children are not very physically active — only 8 percent of elementary schools require daily physical education. Childhood obesity is nearly epidemic, particularly among minority populations, and school systems can play an important role in tackling this issue. For example, only about a quarter of schools adhere to nutritional standards for fat content in school lunches. I will work with schools to create more healthful environments for children, including assistance with contract policy development for local vendors, grant support for school-based health screening programs and clinical services, increased financial support for physical education, and educational programs for students.
Senator McCain has yet to issue a response to these questions. On his campaign website he explains his belief in personal responsibility:
- We must do more to take care of ourselves to prevent chronic diseases when possible, and do more to adhere to treatment after we are diagnosed with an illness.
- Childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are all on the rise. We must again teach our children about health, nutrition and exercise – vital life information.
- Public health initiatives must be undertaken with all our citizens to stem the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and to deter smoking.
In their focus on education, Senators Obama and McCain reinforce a more conservative framework that emphasizes teaching children as the key to healthier lifestyles, rather than restricting, regulating or more closely monitoring the food industry. Senator Clinton’s language does address junk food advertising directly, but she advocates voluntary self-regulation and increased funding to study the links between advertising and childhood obesity.
The Candidates on Family Farms
Both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama preach support for family farms. In a questionnaire from the Congressional Hunger Center and Drake University Law School, the presidential candidates were asked:
In both rural and urban areas, many Americans lack convenient access to food. As President, how would you increase individuals’ and communities’ access to food?
Senator Clinton’s response:
I will work to increase access to locally grown and distributed food. As Senator, I was proud to start the Farm-to-Fork initiative, to provide consumers with better access to fresh, high quality, locally grown products through farmers’ markets, retailers, restaurants and schools. Given Farm-to-Fork’s success, I would consider working to replicate it around the country.
And Senator Obama’s response:
I support improved access to food through local and regional food systems. As president, I will emphasize the need for Americans to Buy Fresh and Buy Local, implement USDA policies and promote local and regional food systems, support funding for farm-to-school projects, and allow schools to give priority to local sources when ordering food (and grow vibrant and rural economies).
Senator McCain did not respond by the deadline.
Both Clinton and Obama voted for an amendment which would limit farm subsidies in the 2007 Farm Bill. McCain did not cast a vote but was a cosponsor of this amendment, initially introduced by Senator Dorgan (D-ND). This amendment has since been rejected.
All three candidates failed to vote either for or against the 2007 Farm Bill. This Bill, passed in the Senate this past December, is largely viewed as more of the same – subsidies to the largest agribusinesses — and would have been an opportunity for these candidates to take a stand against Big Food. The Senate and the House have passed distinct versions of the bill which now must be negotiated in Congress.
Can food be a political issue in the 2008 election?
At the end of the day, none of the candidates have been outspoken critics of the powers that rest in the hands of the food and beverage industry, nor have any called on the federal government to take a more direct approach in restricting this industry’s influence on society. As the Presidential campaign plays out in the coming months, nutrition,food advocates and journalists have the opportunity to ask the candidates – and voters – to consider what role the next President should play in addressing our nation’s food problems and confronting the growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
Alexandra Lewin is a doctoral studuent in nutrition at Cornell University and is completing her dissertation on federal obesity policy.
View CHW’s coverage on Corporations, Health and the 2008 Presidential Race: