In the Fight Against ‘Big Food,’ Washington is Missing a ‘Good Food’ Lobby

Last Update: June 2, 2023

From the dawn of the age of industrial agriculture more than a half-century ago, to the politicians protecting the interests of companies like Monsanto and McDonald’s today, every American has felt the impact of Big Food’s lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. and at state houses across the nation.

In fact, according to the website, lobbyists representing nearly 270 food, beverage, and agricultural interests were at work in 2014 influencing legislation on issues ranging from the implementation of the 2010 Food Safety and Modernization Act to fast food menu labeling regulations to the revised national dietary guidelines.

Lobbying spending by food and beverage companies exceeded $32 million in 2014, in fact, but was dwarfed by the $57 million spend in 2009, when Michelle Obama’s school lunch reforms were being debated. The law that set national nutrition standards for food served in schools passed, but has faced stiff opposition from Republicans, who were successful last year in rolling back parts of the reforms. In fact, the GOP may succeed in eliminating these measures altogether when the law expires in September.

Perhaps nowhere has the influence of corporate food money been greater than on the issue of genetically modified foods. Food companies and agribusiness have spent millions successfully fighting state-level labeling initiatives in California, Oregon, Washington State, and Colorado.

And just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law that will make GMO labeling a voluntary thing for food companies, in addition to negating state- and county-level restrictions on GE foods. In total, representatives who voted for the anti-labeling bill received three times as much in campaign donations from Big Ag interests than those who voted against the controversial measure.

The moral of the story? When it comes to passing food laws, money definitely talks.

If that’s true, then why are there so few lobbyists working to improve transparency, sustainability, and health in our food system?

This week, food writer Helena Bottemiller Evich reported on this topic for POLITICO, noting that lobbying in the “good food” sector is “limited to non-existent.” As the number of companies offering healthier, more sustainably procured products appears to be on the rise, most of these companies—including Whole Foods, Applegate Farms, and Chipotle—do not have a political lobbyist to their name.

Instead of spending to shift the attitudes of elected officials, many of these companies have worked to shift the conversation among consumers. Chipotle produced an original Hulu series, called Farmed and Dangerous, that lays out in dramatic fashion the “outrageously twisted and utterly unsustainable world of industrial agriculture.” Applegate took a similar approach to Chipotle’s, footing the bill for a documentary calling for a reduction in antibiotic use in agriculture.

“Politicians react to voter sentiment,” Gina Asoudegan, Applegate’s director of mission, told Politico. “Our job is to increase sentiment around certain issues.”

But clearly, politicians also react to money and corporate influence, too—as seen in more than 50 years of government-backed deterioration of our food system.

What do you think? Should there be more “good food” lobbyists advocating for cleaner, more transparent foods and farms? Or are companies like Appleton and Chipotle on the right track by working to win hearts and minds at the consumer level?

Photo credit: Tom Harris via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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