The Role Lobbyists Play In Your Food

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Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

A list of the country’s most powerful lobbyists was released by The Hill earlier this week. If the timing (days away from the election) has you scratching your head on why it matters, consider this:

“Election Day is nearly here, bringing with it a lame-duck session that many in Washington believe will be among the busiest and most consequential of modern times.

“Washington’s corps of lobbyists and advocates will be in the thick of the post-election action, and the best of them—represented here on The Hill’s annual Top Lobbyists list—will be working with gusto to shape the policy choices made on taxes, spending, and the budget,” says The Hill Staff.

RELATED: Big Ag’s Big Money in the 2012 Elections (Infographic)

No surprise that lobbyists representing food or food-related industries made a strong showing on the power list. Here’s what The Hill had to say about a few of those:

  • Abigail Blunt, Kraft Foods. Blunt’s reputation as a whip-smart lobbyist was bolstered this year when she was named head of U.S. government affairs for the new Kraft Food Group.
  • Mary Kay Thatcher, American Farm Bureau Federation. Hands-down one of the top agricultural lobbyists in town, Thatcher has labored tirelessly for a farm bill that reforms commodity subsidies while expanding crop insurance protections.
  • Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group. Still going strong at the group he cofounded in 1993, Cook is a respected voice on agriculture policy and ethanol fuel.

Who’s missing from the most-powerful list? Agri-Pulse says lobbyists for grain, dairy, oilseed and cotton producers are noticeably absent. We’re also surprised that Big Ag interests like Dow, ConAgra, and Monsanto are also missing.

We’re not sure of the exact criteria The Hill used in drawing up the list—they admit their definition of “lobbyist” is broad—but we think Monsanto should have made the list. After all, in the first three quarters of 2012, the company’s lobbying disclosure forms show they spent close to $5 million on influencing issues like biotech regulations, the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act, Roundup Ready alfalfa, and sugar beets.  

Earlier this month, CBS News aired a lobbying 101 segment featuring James Thurber, Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Thurber’s definition of a lobbyist is quite simple: “Someone who advocates for someone else and is getting paid for it.”

Need an example of how lobbying can directly influence something close to home for millions of Americans? Look back to May when we told you about Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.’s role in the pizza as a vegetable move.

“Let’s put the lens on school lunch. In the pizza-as-a-vegetable debacle, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.—who is up for reelection this year—took the time to write a letter to the Department of Agriculture using language identical to that used by Minnesota-based Schwan Food Company, which has nearly 70 percent of the school frozen pizza market, in addition to their Red Baron, Freschetta and Tony's Pizza brands.”

Lobbying interests are also the center of current tussles between the Coalition for Sugar Reform and the American Sugar Alliance to control the U.S. sugar support program; and those between ranchers and farmers over biofuels. (Yes, that’s an energy issue, but it’s also a food one.)

The influence of lobbyists has been a hot topic for years. In the 2008 election, then-Senator Obama promised sweeping reforms, but Thurber bluntly tells CBS News that Obama failed on that promise. Why?

“Because if you want to get a piece of legislation like his health care piece through, you have to bring in big interests. He did. He brought in AARP. He brought in the American Hospital Association. He brought in the AMA in a coalition to support that.”

And, he says, lobbyists aren’t just influencing legislation, they’re helping to write it. Through our food lens here at TakePart, that means the lame-duck session that may be upon us after next week, could indeed, have long-lasting consequences.

More on food politics:

Farmers and Hungry Families Wait for Help as Congress Dithers on Farm Bill

Big Ag’s Big Money in the 2012 Elections (Infographic)

Obama and Romney's Food Policy Priorities: In Their Own Words

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