The Snack Food Association: Washington’s Voice for Sugar, Fat and Salt

A recent study at Brown University Medical School published in the journal Appetite found that reducing the number of snack foods available to consumers could lead to reductions in consumption and therefore lower rates of obesity. However, the trend is in the opposite direction: each year hundreds of new snack foods are introduced to the market, advertised heavily, and retailed in more places. Snack foods represent an important growth opportunity for the food industry both in the U.S. and globally.

In 2005, sales of snack foods exceeded $61 billion in the U.S.3 Snack foods, which tend to be high in calories, sugar, and sodium, have become daily staples for millions of Americans, and, increasingly, for consumers in other parts of the world. Snack foods are among the most heavily advertised products on television, and the U.S. corporations that manufacture them are among the largest and most influential global companies. Retailers like snack foods because they are convenient to sell and have a high profit margin. Remarkably, candy and confectionary products are the third largest food category sold in the U.S., behind carbonated beverages and milk.2 The fourth largest category is salty snacks, and cookies rank seventh.2

Why are products consistently implicated in the growing rates of obesity continuing to expand their market share?

One reason is that makers of snack foods have a far more powerful voice in Washington, where the rules governing food and health are set, than do ordinary eaters or those concerned about obesity. According to its website, the Snack Food Association (SFA) is “the international trade association of the snack food industry.” 2 Founded in 1937, the SFA represents more than 800 manufacturers and suppliers of snack foods worldwide. Members include “manufacturers of potato chips, tortilla chips, cereal snacks, pretzels, popcorn, cheese snacks, snack crackers, meat snacks, pork rinds, snack nuts, party mix, corn snacks, pellet snacks, fruit snacks, snack bars, granola, snack cakes, cookies and various other snacks.”

What does the Snack Food Association do?

Its mission is “to provide value for SFA members by offering services and relationship building forums that strengthen the performance of member companies and support industry growth.” Its activities include serving as the voice for the snack food industry before government; researching and compiling annual snack industry sales and consumer data; promoting increased snack consumption by sponsoring National Snack Food Month in February; providing a positive industry voice to the national, local and trade media; educating manufacturers on technological advances in equipment and raw ingredients, and on consumer trends pertaining to the snack industry; sponsoring the largest convention and trade show in the world devoted exclusively to snacks (to sign up for the 72nd Annual Snaxpo in Orlando, Florida in 2009, visit http://www.snaxpo.com/); and providing technical support to its members through direct assistance, videos, seminars and publications.

In 2007, for example, the Snack Food Association held its annual Spring Summit in Washington, D.C.4 Some 40 snack food executives met with members of the House and Senate, heard a presentation from a top Defense Department official, who encouraged snack food companies to contribute products for troops who visit United Service Organization locations at America’s airports, and were treated to a VIP tour of the U.S. Supreme Court by Chief Justice John Roberts, who answered members questions about corporate law. In a luncheon address, Republican Senator Pat Roberts told the snack execs, “I don’t think the founding fathers felt that the federal government should get into what food we eat. Obesity is a big problem, but it is not the proper role of the federal government to tell people what to eat.” Instead, the Senator stated, consumers should use “moderation” in their diets and he called for legislation requiring schools to include physical education programs in their curriculum. The SFA also supports such legislation.

Other legislative priorities of the SFA include:

  • Opposition to limiting choice for Food Stamp Program participants
  • Opposition to redefining Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value
  • Opposition to the Country of Origin Labeling provision for Processed Peanuts
  • Opposition to union card check legislation, the Employee Free (Forced) Choice Act
  • Support for the Fair Labor Standards Act–Motor Carrier Exemption (Overtime Rules for Drivers of Vehicles Under 10,001 lbs.)
  • Support limited liability for food manufacturers (Commonsense Consumption Act)
  • Support for National Uniformity for Food
  • Support for requiring physical education in schools
  • Support for reform of the U.S. Sugar Program

The SFA has also sponsored research on the effects of sodium on blood pressure and health, and presents health information to the government panels that determine the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.2 The SFA is a sponsor of Best Food Nation , a public relations effort launched by the food industry respond to any criticism of the U.S. food system and to represent the industry’s views on the scientific evidence on obesity. Box 1 shows the members of Best Food Nation.

Box 1. Members of Best Food Nation

American Farm Bureau Federation
American Meat Institute
Cattlemen’s Beef Board
Corn Refiners Association
Food Products Association
International Franchise Association
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
National Chicken Council
National Council of Chain Restaurants
National Milk Producers Federation
National Pork Board
National Pork Producers Council
National Potato Council
National Restaurant Association
National Retail Federation
National Turkey Federation
Produce Marketing Association
Snack Food Association
U.S. Potato Board
United Egg Producers

Recently, the SFA went before Congress to seek financial assistance from the U.S. government to alleviate the increasing commodities prices of corn, wheat, and other products that are affecting snack foods manufacturers. In fact, the growing price of snack food staples represents a significant threat to the industry’s continued profitability.

The SFA actively opposes any restrictions on the right of corporations to advertise unhealthy products. As required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, the SFA is registered as a lobby organization with the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Secretary of the U.S. Senate. Among other measures, the SFA has joined with the Alliance for American Advertising.6 According to The Wall Street Journal, at the time of its formation, the Alliance for American Advertising was the most ambitious effort yet to oppose government regulation in food advertising aimed at children; funders include industry giants General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft.7 The SFA has also joined with the lobby organization known as the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition in opposing restrictions on vending machines in schools; funders include PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, and the National Soft Drink Association.7 These relationships illustrate the complex web of trade associations that work to protect industry interests in Washington and elsewhere.

The SFA also seeks to provide the media with positive messages on the snack food industry. For example, in an April 2007 press release, the SFA announced its support of voluntary school nutrition standards, stating, “The Snack Food Association is delighted to be part of a growing coalition of companies and trade associations that are doing their part to help parents, educators, and health professionals teach kids about healthier lifestyles.”9

Motivated by threats of tighter regulation and costly lawsuits, several multi-billion dollar corporations have agreed to voluntary measures to limit junk food advertising to children over the past two years. In August 2007, the Federal Trade Commission issued subpoenas to 44 food and beverage companies, including Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Kraft, General Mills, and Procter & Gamble, to request information on how they market their products to children.5 Products such as Trix cereal, Oreo cookies, and Pringles potato chips, are some of the products that contribute to childhood obesity. In an effort to convince skeptics that the snack and junk food industries can regulate themselves, some major corporations have implemented voluntary measures. Proposed measures include having at least half of junk food advertising directed at children under the age of 12 include the promotion of “healthier food options” or physical activity.10, 11

Critics of the Snack Food Industry

Critics question the value of these voluntary guidelines. According to Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, under these guidelines, so-called healthy ads could include advertisements for sugary cereal because they meet the FDA’s definition of “healthy” which does not speak to sugar content.10 He said the healthy lifestyle message could include Ronald McDonald pedaling a bicycle while eating fast food. 10 He stated, “That message still does more harm than good. It’s a joke.” 10

In recent years, many legislators have become concerned with the role of the food industry in contributing to the high rates of obesity in the U.S. In late 2006, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, ordered the Federal Trade Commission to look into the issue of junk-food advertisements targeting children. Commenting on the obesity epidemic, he stated, “We must take steps to protect our children’s health. Parents are being undermined by the junk-food culture that is increasingly promoted to our kids on TV.”5

The bottom Line

In sum, the SFA uses a variety of mechanisms to advance industry interests. The SFA claims to be a positive voice for snack food manufacturers, and it says it supports initiatives aimed at curbing the childhood obesity epidemic. But with most nutritionists agreeing that the central nutrition message today should be to eat less highly processed food, the Snack Food Association remains a powerful force for the opposite message, Eat more of the products our members make. Thus, the SFA serves as a powerful accelerator of the trends that that are making so many Americans overweight, sick and dying prematurely.

References

1. Raynor HA, Wing RR. Effect of limiting snack food variety across days on hedonics and consumption. Appetite. 2006;46(2):168-76.
2. Food Association website. Accessed April 22, 2008 at http://www.sfa.org
3. “Snack Food Trends in the U.S.: Sweet, Salty, Healthy and Kids Snacks.” July 1, 2006 Report published by Packaged Facts. 308 pages — Pub ID: LA1119533. Available for purchase at

http://www.marketresearch.com/map/prod/1119533.html

4. Gatty B. “Hitting ‘the hill’: Snack Food Association members lobbied congress about key issues.” June 1, 2007, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery. Accessed June 1, 2008 at http://www.allbusiness.com/retail-trade/food-beverage-stores-
specialty-food/4510508-1.html
5. Lopes, G. “FTC not sweet on junk-food ads targeting children.” The Washington Times. November 7, 2006.
6. Institute of Medicine, Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth, J. Michael McGinnis, Jennifer Appleton Gootman, Vivica I. Kraak, Editors. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity.  2006. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.  Available online at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11514#toc
7. Ellison S. “Divided, companies fight for the right to plug kids’ food.” January 26, 2005. The Wall Street Journal.
8. Source Watch: A project of the Center for Media and Democracy. Article on the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition. Accessed June 1, 2008 at http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=American_Council_for_
Fitness_and_Nutrition
9. Snack Food Association press release dated April 26, 2007. “Snack Food Association Supports Voluntary School Nutrition Standards.” Accessed April 22, 2008 at: http://www.sfa.org/pressreleaseclinton.aspx
10. Martin, A. “Leading makers agree to put limits on junk food advertising directed at children.” The New York Times. November 15, 2006.
11. Brooks Barnes. “Limiting ads of junk food for children.” The New York Times. July 18, 2007.

Photo Credits:
1. bmcfee