Who Advances the Food Industry’s Political Agenda?

In recent weeks, the food industry has responded forcefully to efforts by advocates and regulators to advance new policies to create healthier food environments. For example, the soda industry has begun a concerted legal effort to stop or slow public health campaigns on the adverse effects of sugar-sweetened beverages. According to Reuters, the soda industry and its attorneys have filed at least six document requests with public agencies from California to New York. “It is, in our opinion, an effort to overwhelm or smother government employees, who already have too much to do,” Ian McLaughlin, an attorney at the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity in Oakland, California, told Reuters.

And in response to the Federal Trade Commission’s proposal for voluntary guidelines for food marketing to children, the nation’s largest food and drink marketers are developing their own campaign to avoid public oversight.

In these and other policy debates, the food industry relies on a network of trade association, law firms and lobbying groups to advance its case. In order to help CHW readers better understand the web of organizations, I present in the table below brief descriptions of a few of the largest trade associations, for the most part in their own words.


The American Beverage Association, says its website, is a trade organization that represents the beverage industry in the United States. Its members include producers and bottlers of soft drinks, bottled water, and other non-alcoholic beverages. ABA was founded in 1919, and originally named the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages. In 1966, it renamed itself the National Soft Drink Association. Then in November 2004, it changed to its current name, “to better reflect the expanded range of nonalcoholic beverages the industry produces.”


Americans Against Food Taxes, reports its website, is a coalition of concerned citizens – responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country – opposed to the government tax hikes on food and beverages, including soda, juice drinks, and flavored milks. Its lead sponsor is the American Beverage Association. The mission of the coalition is two-fold: 1) To promote a healthy economy and healthy lifestyles by educating Americans about smart solutions that rely upon science, economic realities and common sense; and 2) To prevent the enactment of regressive and discriminatory taxes that will not teach our children how to live a healthy lifestyle, and will have no meaningful impact on public health, but will have a negative impact on American families struggling in this economy. Its members include 7-Eleven, Inc., Burger King Corp., Domino’s Pizza, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, McDonalds, the National Association of Convenience Stores, Snack Food Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Wendy’s/Arby’s Group, Inc.


The Association of National Advertisers, says its website, is the advertising industry’s oldest trade association, founded in 1910 in Detroit, Michigan by 45 companies to “safeguard and advance the interests of advertisers and consumers.” Currently, the ANA leads the marketing community by providing its members insights, collaboration, and advocacy. ANA’s membership includes 400 companies with 10,000 brands that collectively spend over $250 billion in marketing communications and advertising.


The Grocery Manufacturers Association, says its website is “the voice of more than 300 leading food, beverage and consumer product companies that sustain and enhance the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe. Based in Washington, D.C., GMA’s member organizations include internationally recognized brands as well as steadily growing, localized brands.” Founded in 1908, GMA is an active, vocal advocate for its members. The association and its member companies are committed to meeting the needs of consumers through product innovation, responsible business practices and effective public policy solutions developed through a genuine partnership with policymakers and other stakeholders.


The National Association of Convenience Stores is an international trade association representing more than 2,100 retail and 1,500 supplier company members. According to itswebsite NACS member companies do business in nearly 50 countries worldwide, with the majority of members based in the United States. The U.S. convenience store industry, with more than 146,000 stores across the country, posted $511 billion in total sales in 2009. NACS serves the convenience and petroleum retailing industry by providing industry knowledge, connections and advocacy to ensure the competitive viability of its members’ businesses.


The Snack Food Association (SFA), says its website is the international trade association of the snack food industry representing snack manufacturers and suppliers. Founded in 1937, SFA represents over 400 companies worldwide. SFA business membership includes, but is not limited to, 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.

  The United States Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business federation representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions, as well as state and local chambers and industry associations. More than 96% of U.S. Chamber members are small businesses with 100 employees or fewer, says its website.


Campaign Contributions and Lobbying Expenditures of Selected Food Trade Associations

These organizations play an active role in campaign contributions and lobbying. In the table below, I report their total campaign contributions in the specified period and the percentage of these contributions that went to Democrats and to Republicans. The table also shows the total amount these organizations reported spending on lobbying in the period indicated and the main bills for which they have lobbied in recent years. The sources for these data are two databases created by theSunlight Foundation. The first, Influence Explorer, shows how specific organizations, companies, individuals and elected officials influence our political system. The second, Poligraft, enables visitors to paste in a newspaper article or other report and shows a detailed view of the connections between the individuals and organizations described in the article and their influence on our political system.


These organizations hire law and lobbying firms to advance their agenda. A review of the Sunlight Foundation databases shows several of the trade associations use the same lobbying firms. For example, the American Beverage Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Association of National Advertisers together paid Patton Boggs LLP, the nation’s top ranked lobbying firm by revenues, almost $1.5 million in the intervals listed in the chart above. The US Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers of America together paid the law firm Akin Gump almost $3.5 million for lobbying in the last two decades, a time when that firm ranked second the in the nation for total lobbying revenues. The Chamber and the American Beverage Association paid the Bokorny Group more than $2.6 million. The table below describes these three lobbying firms, only a few of the many companies advancing the interests of Big Food in Washington.


Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP Akun Gump, according to Wikipedia, is a law firm founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1945 by Robert Strauss and Richard Gump. The firm now numbers more than 800 attorneys and advisers in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Akin Gump’s work has been recognized by leading legal media and rating publications and organizations. In 2010, the firm was ranked as one of the nation’s top 20 corporate law firms by Corporate Board Member.

The Bockorny Group The Bockorny Group, according to its website is a bipartisan government affairs consulting firm specializing in a wide range of public policy areas with long standing relationships within the White House and on Capitol Hill. “We represent a diverse client base of major trade associations and Fortune 100 companies throughout the country. For over 20 years, the firm has weathered significant shifts in political party control as well as in ideology. In each instance, we look to adapt strategically while representing business needs with an adherence to the highest ethical and professional standards. Our vast amount of experience enables us to tailor a customized political and policy oriented strategy. This strategy can be the key to defeating a regulatory challenge or, in other cases, winning a legislative provision central to a company’s bottom line… The firm is one of the best when corporations or trade associations are in need of navigating legislative and regulatory terrain.”

Patton Boggs LLP For more than 40 years, says the firm’s website, Patton Boggs has maintained a reputation for cutting-edge advocacy “by working closely with Congress and regulatory agencies in Washington, litigating in courts across the country, and negotiating business transactions around the world. Our partners include women and men with extensive backgrounds in government service with strong ties to both major political parties, as well as top-flight litigators and individuals with a keen understanding of business and finance. Patton Boggs began as an international law firm concentrating in global business and trade in 1962. … We were among the first law firms to recognize that all three branches of government could serve as forums in which to achieve client goals, enabling us to emerge as the nation’s leading public policy law firm, and we have developed our extensive business law capabilities into the firm’s largest practice area.”

This brief overview of the food industry’s political operations shows the power and resources the industry has at its disposal. To advance their own agenda, nutrition and health advocates will need to develop strategies that turn these corporate assets into liabilities and their own limitations into assets. More on that in future CHW posts.