You Eat What You Lobby: The Impact of Big Food’s Lobbying on the American Diet


Since the major consolidation and industrialization of food corporations in the early 1900s, lobbying efforts by food corporations have increased, greatly halting the progression of nutritional reform. Food lobbying, mainly controlled by a few major corporations, has been instrumental in preventing laws regarding healthier school lunches, food guidelines, and nutritional food stamps. As the diet of the nation worsens due to the products sold by these very companies, it is important to fix the lobbying issue in order to preserve our country’s health.

I have always been interested in nutrition and the food industry and have even written past papers on those topics. However, I was curious to focus specifically on the issue of food lobbying as I know that it is a large intricate problem that many are unaware of. I am aiming to educate people on the impact of food lobbying in hopes of making positive change on the food industry.

The Influence of Time: Food Lobbying’s Progression through the 1900s

The first inlet into allowing food corporations to influence federal government policies was the formation of the Food and Drug Association (FDA), created in 1906 in response to adulteration of products as well as the unhygienic ways of the meat industry (Hayden and Skotnicki 5). Around that same time, the end of the Gilded Age, the rise of mechanization in the food industry began. It was during the early 1900s that many large food companies such as Oreo, Hellman’s, and Nabisco were founded (Leite 1). However, specialization kept the companies’ powers limited.

Then the age of consolidation took birth- the 1920s. It was during this time that many smaller companies merged together to form super corporations. As a newspaper in 1929 put it, “the consolidation movement was a revolution going on in the food industry” (NYT newspaper 1). One major corporation in particular that was formed, was the General Foods Corporation, which owned product lines in many different food departments. By owning companies in all different food markets, corporations like General Foods gained monopolies over the food industry, allowing them to join larger lobbying groups in the future. Consolidation only increased from this point forward.

The period between the 1950s and 1990s saw a significant increase in corporate involvement in politics. This drastic growth was mainly due to new methods of lobbying and a continuing increase in consolidation. The two main methods of food lobbying developed during this time were funding and revolving door policies. According to a 1998 report, food and agriculture lobbyists spent $52 million in 1998 on issues concerning nutrition specifically. For example, the Grocery Manufacturers of America spent over $1.4 million, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association $400,000, the National Pork Producers Council $200,000, Kraft General Foods $120,000, and the Cheese Importers Association $20,000 towards lobbying against the use of food stamps, accurate food guidelines, and other nutritional causes (Nestle 102). Clearly, these statistics show how money going to legislators is skewed to favor larger industries and corporations. Yet, it only gets worse.

Revolving door policies are a form of lobbying where a government official and an executive from a corporation switch jobs in order to carry out personal interests where both sides benefit. Revolving doors have been carried out many times in the food and agriculture industry, resulting in preferential treatment of food corporations in nutritional policies. For example, in 1971, USDA secretary, Clifford Harding traded positions with Earl Butz, the director at Ralston Purina (now Nestle Purina Pet Company.) During his time as USDA secretary, Butz implemented many policies such as selling grain to the Soviet Union, which would benefit his company rather than serve the interest of the nation (Nestle 100). The revolving door policy is a direct way that corporations control government decisions. In most instances, the policies made are used solely to benefit the bottom line of these companies at the cost of the waistline of the general population. These extreme lobbying methods set a strong basis for the extensive present day lobbying.

Link to full historical research:

Lobbying Against Change: The Impact of Food Lobbying on the Present Day

As food lobbying has advanced into the 21st century, more progressive nutrition policies, especially those affecting lower income communities, have been halted by food corporations. Some of the largest issues include improving the nutrition of school lunches, taxing unhealthy foods and beverages such as soda, and limiting the use of food stamps for healthier options only. The overarching cause that “Big Food” (the term used to describe large food corporations) fights for is the deregulation of the food industry. These values are carried through in a few different ways. First, Big Food litigates against food regulations. This means that even after a piece of legislation has been passed through the legislative branch (federally or at the state level), corporations seek to shut it down in court, mainly using the first amendment of free speech against being required to provide certain food labels. One main example of this showed up in San Francisco in the May of 2016 when Big Food attempted to shut down a bill mandating a health warning on sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) (Gostin 482).

The second way that Big Food influences current policies is through co-opting regulators and legislation. In 2015 alone, individual and political action committees donated $34 million to federal political lobbying to halt progressive nutrition bills (Gostin 481). The majority of this money went to Republican representatives who strongly oppose regulation in general. One specific example that has been seen throughout history and continues to date, is the skewing of USDA food guides. For example, many food guides still reflect misleading information regarding protein, heavily influenced by corporations in the meat industry (Heid 1). Studies have linked heavy meat consumption to higher rates of heart disease, premature death, and cancer, and have shown that lowering meat consumption prevents chronic disease. However, in the 2015 guideline (which still holds true today), consuming more red meat is referred to be a “healthier eating pattern.” According to Marion Nestle, former chair of Public Health at NYU who worked on this 2015 guideline report, “I was told we could never say ‘eat less meat’ because USDA would not allow it,” an inside perspective on the extent of the meat industry’s lobbying powers (Heid 1). Another instance where this method of lobbying occurred was in the fight for a SSB (sugar sweetened beverage) tax. After Berkeley, California became the first city to tax SSBs in 2015, generating $700,000 in 6 months, other cities such as San Francisco sought to follow in their footsteps. Nonetheless, after the American Beverage Association created an $11 million dollar campaign against the bill, the bill ultimately failed to pass in San Francisco, a great defeat for the city’s health (Gostin 481).

An advertisement against the SSB tax in Cook County, Illinois funded by Lobbyist Groups

However, the public has responded more in the 21st century to these issues than ever before. Many do this by backing consumer litigation against Big Food. Public health advocates tried to follow the model of tobacco tort litigation to change public opinion. To fight this force, Big Food has attempted to stall food litigation in states, backed by conservative support. This overall conflict between Big Food, consumers and public health workers has caused large scale battles over many issues. One of these debates is over the improvement of nutrition in school lunches. According to the Environmental Working Group, tax records show that $6.7 million out of the $10.5 million the School Nutrition Association collected in 2012 came from sponsorship fees from food companies like Schwan’s Food Service, a major provider of pizza to schools (Overby 1). Companies like these are the same who lobby against healthier options as they would lose business if the bill passed. Another issue that has been fought over is the issue of limiting food stamps to healthier foods. The first major instance where this bill showed up was in New York City, when mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed to limit portion sizes on SSBs for food stamp users. However, Big Food financed “shadow groups” to oppose the bill, shutting it down. This means that food corporations funded “community based organizations” in order to oppose the plan. What appeared as low income and minority communities fighting for their rights was only corporations using them to profit. What makes it even worse, is that these corporations proceeded to fund scientists to discount the harms of SSBs and other foods in order to not single out specific corporations.

Still, even through all the struggles, major improvements are being made. The most impactful action taken in the recent past has been the weakening of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). In 2017, many of the biggest corporations including Nestle, Campbell’s, Tyson, Unilever, and Mars left the GMA as their values did not align regarding labeling on food packages. Specifically, they did not support the GMA’s vehement opposition to requiring GMO (genetic modification) labels on foods (Paul 1). Another improvement made was the increase in “good food” companies including Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Applegate. However, even though these companies have greatly impacted the industry economically, they still lack lobbying presence, causing an imbalance in federal lobbying overall. (Evich 1). Evidently, food corporations still take advantage of lobbying to halt progressive policies to this day. Even though progress is being made, there is so much more that needs to be done.

Link to full present day research:

Companies left the GMA due to the fight over these GMO labels

A Call to Action

Even though these issues may seem insurmountable, actions can still be taken to blunt the influence of lobbyists. The limitation of today’s food movements is that their scale is not large enough to significantly alter Big Food’s mindset. In order to combat the problem effectively, we must address the root of the problem- inaccessibility of healthier foods in low income communities. This can be solved in many collective ways. First, equalizing farm subsidies between produce and grain farmers will create an overall baseline for the market to lower the prices of healthier foods. For this to happen, a strong grassroots nutritional lobby group must be formed. This organization, following the model of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, must be spearheaded by nutrition experts and educated citizens who can generate common public interest and awareness among people of all economic strata. This group should mobilize the low income people of America to boycott Big Food’s corporations, further weakening their profits and therefore their influence. Once the corporate lobbying force has been combated through nutritional lobbyists and large boycott movements, progressive nutrition laws can finally be passed, further improving the health of the nation.

Individuals can take many actions to support the movement against food industry lobbying. Mirroring the success of the anti-tobacco movement, it is crucial to stay informed on lobbying issues through news websites and spread the movements’ influence by educating others. Many organizations such as the Nutrition Coalition fight for causes such as accurate food guidelines, healthier school lunches and other causes. You can support these organizations by donating or getting involved in their events in order to spread the word. If a bill is on the table regarding nutritional lobbying policies, contact legislators to understand different perspectives and push your cause. Additionally, when voting on legislators, it is important to research their background with food deregulation as someone in support of it may hinder nutrition lobbying. Lastly, try to know the background of the food companies you buy from to determine if they should be supported. If accessible to you, shopping from smaller companies or those who lobby for nutritional reform such as Whole Foods and Chipotle can be a great step towards positive change. Clearly, there are many small steps that one can take to limit the power of lobbying food corporations and to support the greater cause of nutritional reform in America. The health of American citizens is an important issue that, if helped, can greatly improve the nation as a whole.

Works Cited:

Thank you for taking the time to read my paper. Hope you enjoyed it and learned something new. Please leave me any feedback in the comment section below!

Share this project
  1. April 26, 2019 by Ella.Bogdanski

    Hi Lali,

    Thank you so much for this informative post. I learned that food lobbying exists along with a lot of interesting historical information. I was shocked at how much money is spent on food lobbying. Your suggestions for taking action on the issue are insightful and thoughtful. In the future, I hope to spend some time researching legislators thoughts surrounding food lobbying. Your project reminded me of the film super Size Me. Have you ever seen it?

    Best, Ella

  2. April 27, 2019 by Julia.Kashimura

    This page was very organized and informative. I didn’t know a lot about food lobbying before this, but this made me very interested in it. I like your call to action because it was very detailed and thoughtful. But, wouldn’t it look nicer if you embed the link instead of directly pasting it onto the page?

  3. May 05, 2019 by Takuma.Warren

    You organized this article really well and it is very informative. You make a clear argument on how lobbying and revolving door policies can lead to large corporations getting the upper hand rather than actually taking into account the peoples wants and needs.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.