Despite lots of big food policy debates swirling in Washington, many progressive food companies don't have skin in the game.
With the crush of news headlines this week, you could probably be forgiven for missing this bit of news, which is that Kind, maker of those increasingly popular wholesome snack bars, has hired a lobbying firm. Should seem like no big deal, right? Happens all the time.
Except, it kind of doesn’t.
At least not when it comes to the purveyors of organic and other purportedly good-for-you/good-for-the-planet foods.
As an in-depth report last year by Politico detailed, when it comes to playing ball in Washington, “there is virtually no ‘good food’ industry lobbying strategy in place.” Even as brands such as Whole Foods, Applegate, Panera, and Chipotle (well, before the food-poisoning scare) have steadily attracted legions of loyal customers and a growing market share, they’ve largely avoided inserting themselves in the tangled business of lobbying for federal policies and legislation that might favor the so-called good food industry.
That all might seem fine, admirable even. After all, who really wants to see the companies they admire enmeshed in the morally dubious business of lobbying for favors? The fact that Chobani stocks congressional offices with its namesake yogurt and then, lo and behold, is awarded a large contract to supply yogurt to schools nationwide seems innocuous at first—yogurt is good for kids, right? If we were talking about Coke, however, it would be a different story.
But from the big farm bill to federal nutrition guidelines to the debate over GMO labeling, the politics of food is big business in Washington—and increasingly, it belongs to big business. Politico notes that during the Obama administration, spending on lobbying by the food and beverage industry has doubled, with companies such as Coke and PepsiCo dropping millions.
That’s left some advocates of the good food movement flustered. As Sam Kass, former food policy adviser in the Obama White House, told Politico regarding the aversion of progressive food companies to engaging in Washington: “You have to show up. Showing up works. You can’t complain that corporations show up and have an impact and then not show up.”
For its part, Kind appears to have shown up because it was more or less forced to. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration sent the company a stern warning letter, stating that certain of the company’s snack bars ran afoul of the agency’s guidelines on foods that can be labeled “healthy.” That the FDA’s guidelines are outdated and a bit ridiculous doesn’t seem to have mattered, as a cheeky infographic put out by Kind in the wake of the flap attests: Sugary cereal, fat-free chocolate pudding, and low-fat toaster pastries all meet the FDA guidelines for “healthy,” while things like avocados, almonds and salmon, because of their fat content per serving, don’t.
Kind complied by revamping its labels and the claims on its website. But it has gone a step further, filing a petition with the FDA as it considers finally updating its guidance on the use of the term “natural” to urge the agency to bring its rules into alignment with the most recent science concerning the health benefits of consuming foods like nuts and seed. Indeed, it would seem the epitome of bureaucratic absurdity that the recently issued federal dietary guidelines would exhort people to consume certain whole foods like nuts while the FDA prohibits some of those same foods from being marketed as “healthy.”
But pointing to the power of collective lobbying action in D.C., one food policy expert told The Guardian: “FDA is unlikely to take action based on one company’s request. If they had teamed up with the rest of the nut industry, or the olive oil or avocado industry, they’d have a better chance.”