After leaving prominent trade group, alliance of food giants hires first lobbyists

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Mars, Inc. is one of four companies that make up the new Sustainable Food Policy Alliance. (via flickr – user Like_the_Grand_Canyon)

A new alliance of major food companies hired two former congressional staffers as lobbyists to petition the federal government on food and agricultural issues.

The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance was founded by Danone North America, Mars, Nestlé USA and Unilever USA last year after the four companies left the Grocery Manufacturers Association — the predominant food lobby group in Washington — in 2017 amid disagreements over the trade association’s stance on key policy issues.

Danone is a French multinational corporation whose subsidiaries include brands such as Horizon Organic, while the Amsterdam-based Unilever includes popular brands such as Ben & Jerry’s. Nestle, one of the largest food companies in the world, owns dozens of brands including Häagen-Dazs and San Pellegrino. Mars, the only private company of the four, has numerous candy brands.

Since its launch in July 2018, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance has spoken on a range of environmental issues. In October, the group submitted comments to the Environmental Protection Agency expressing concerns about the Trump administration’s proposed Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which would replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

In April, the organization released a climate policy proposal that advocated for a federal carbon pricing system, as well as other measures aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions in accordance with the goals the U.S. had set as part of the 2016 Paris Agreement. The group’s proposal was fairly consistent with the four companies’ previous public statements on environmental issues — Nestlé and Unilever have spoken in favor of carbon pricing before, while Danone independently pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and Mars announced last year it would invest $1 billion in fighting climate change.

At the same time, some of these previous sustainability efforts have been met with criticism. Nestlé in particular has encountered backlash from environmental activists over its continued collection of spring water, an issue on which the company has continued to lobby this year.

The Alliance has also issued comments on proposed labeling of genetically engineered foods, a subject on which its members sometimes conflicted with the positions held by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. In 2017, the Association successfully campaigned for the FDA to extend the time allocated to companies to comply with new nutritional labeling rules, to the chagrin of companies such as Mars, which had already modified their labels to follow the new rules. The candy company left the trade association shortly thereafter.

The loss of several of its high-profile members was only one of several controversies for the Grocery Manufacturers Association in recent years. The group also faced criticism over campaign finance violations in 2013, when it failed to disclose its donors as it advocated against a ballot initiative concerning GMO labeling in Washington state. The Association was initially slapped with an $18 million fine, which would have been the largest in the history of campaign finance, but the amount was reduced to $6 million by an appeals court last year.

The Association, which spent more than $14 million on federal lobbying in 2013 when GMO labeling was considered as an amendment to that year’s farm bill, has seen its lobbying efforts have fallen off substantially in recent years. The organization, which named a new president last summer, spent less than $2 million on federal lobbying in 2018 and just $370,000 during the first quarter of 2019, on pace to be its slowest lobbying year since 2006.

The Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, meanwhile, is looking to grow its influence. The group’s initial lobbying disclosure, dated April 29, did not specify bills the group might lobby on. Both of the lobbyists it hired, Joel Leftwich and Grant Leslie of the Glover Park Group, have been through the revolving door: Leftwich served as the majority staff director to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry until 2017, while Leslie was formerly an aide to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as well as two Democratic senators.

The four individual companies have also continued to maintain their own robust lobbying operations. Unilever spent $480,000 in the first quarter of 2019 lobbying in favor of banning animal testing and giving the FDA additional authority to regulate personal care products. Mars and Nestlé spent $430,000 and $315,000, respectively, during the first quarter, and both lobbied on issues including the implementation of President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law and the 2018 Farm Bill. Danone has lobbied comparatively little so far this year, spending only $90,000 in the first quarter.

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