Big business wins Capitol food fights

08/17/2014 12:00 AM

08/16/2014 4:13 PM

On the Tuesday in June when the Assembly health committee killed a bill to require warning labels on sodas, 13 lawmakers and more than three dozen legislative staff members attended a reception inside California’s Capitol sponsored by PepsiCo.

The soft drink giant – a major opponent of the effort to put health warnings on sugary drinks – reported it spent $2,200 catering the event on a patio outside Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s office. It also provided $1,600 worth of books to be signed by the reception’s featured guest: PepsiCo executive Richard Montañez, who wrote an autobiography about his rise from janitor to vice president at the corporation that makes chips and soda.

Two lawmakers at the event helped defeat the bill earlier that day. They said the reception had nothing to do with their decisions. But when it comes to food fights in the state Capitol, big business often wins.

Lawmakers have considered at least four bills this year aimed at giving Californians more information about what they eat and drink. Bills that seek to accurately label seafood and the origins of produce sold at farmers markets are moving through the Legislature, while bills to put health warnings on sugary drinks and label foods with genetically engineered ingredients died in the face of industry opposition.

“We saw a huge mobilization of resources against (the soda label bill) from a relatively small group of corporate associations,” said Sen. Bill Monning, the Carmel Democrat who carried SB 1000, which would have required sodas sold in California to carry labels warning that consuming sugary drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. He compared that to support for the effort from dozens of community health groups.

“There is definitely a dynamic at play where the lobbying resources make a difference.”

Later on the day the bill was killed, PepsiCo spent another $400 wining and dining lawmakers, the company’s lobbying report shows, taking Alejo, his chief of staff, Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez and his wife to dinner at the Aioli restaurant in midtown. Rodriguez is a member of the health committee. Alejo is not.

Earlier that afternoon, Rodriguez and another guest at the PepsiCo book-signing – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez – helped defeat the soda labeling measure. As she cast her vote against the bill, Gonzalez called it an “honorable effort” but said a decline in soda sales would eliminate too many bottling and distribution jobs in her district.

Pepsi’s hospitality that day was pure coincidence, said those involved in the event. Montañez came to Sacramento because the Legislature’s Latino Caucus invited him to share his rags-to-riches story, said his spokeswoman Christina Martínez. He did not lobby anyone while he was here, she said.

Gonzalez and Rodriguez said they didn’t even realize the reception featuring Montañez was paid for by Pepsi.

“From our perspective, this was a Latino Caucus event celebrating an author, somebody that rose up through the ranks, the embodiment of the American dream. That’s what we went to,” said Francisco Estrada, chief of staff to Rodriguez, a Pomona Democrat.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Latino Caucus, pointed out that the caucus itself did not take a position on the legislation, and that caucus chairman Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is a co-author of the bill.

Gonzalez emphasized that her vote came before the reception and called a reporter an “idiot” for raising questions about the timing.

“Nobody talked to me about this bill there. Nobody talked to me about my vote,” said Gonzalez, D-San Diego. “These are middle-class jobs in my district. My constituents called me. That’s who I listen to.”

Big industry, big money

The soda industry beefed up its lobbying efforts in the months leading up to the vote that killed Monning’s bill. It argued that the labeling requirement would be “confusing for consumers and expensive for businesses,” and that singling out one product containing sugar for labeling is illogical and unfair. The American Beverage Association, which previously did not have a registered lobbyist in Sacramento, hired a local firm in April. Also that month, Coca-Cola added a second lobbying firm to its arsenal. Coke nearly doubled the amount it spent on lobbying during the first six months of the year, to $71,411, compared with the same period last year.

Coke also donated $109 worth of beverages to the San Diego ceremony swearing in new Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. That was less than two weeks before the health committee in her house took up the soda labeling bill.

“Donating product is just part of what most industries do. I don’t think that it necessarily factors into any lobbying strategy,” said Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for the California Soft Drink Association, which represents Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper.

Pepsi, Nestlé and Kraft fought a different food labeling battle in California two years ago, when they helped fund the opposition to a 2012 ballot measure that would have required new labels on foods containing genetically engineered ingredients, also known as GMOs.

Genetic engineering is a laboratory technique in which scientists splice the DNA of one plant or animal and combine it with DNA from something else. Genetically modified crops make their way into thousands of common non-organic food products, including cereal, bread and sweets.

Biotech companies and farm bureaus say the technique helps produce food in abundance and keep costs low. They oppose labeling genetically modified food, saying that calling it out implies a health threat that doesn’t exist. Some consumer advocates counter that shoppers should have easy access to the information because some people believe GMOs are tied to allergies and other ailments.

A bill that moved through the Legislature this year would have required the same kinds of GMO labels that voters rejected in 2012. Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she carried Senate Bill 1381 because of public demand for more information about the ingredients in common foods. The bill died in the Senate when a handful of Democrats withheld their votes or joined Republicans in voting against it. That marked a win for the biotech companies that make genetically engineered seeds; Evans said they lobbied heavily against her.

“The food industry is very powerful. We saw an enormous number of lobbyists come out very strongly against my GMO labeling bill this year,” Evans said. “Processed food is big industry, there is big money involved. ... So it’s very difficult to push back against that.”

Earlier this year, Vermont became the first state in the country to pass a law requiring labels on genetically modified foods. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association and other industry groups immediately sued the state over the new law, asking the court to block a “senseless mandate.”

The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, based in Vermont and a supporter of the GMO labeling law, responded by renaming one of its flavors “Food Fight Fudge Brownie,” and pledging to donate $1 from each Vermont sale of the flavor to a legal defense fund fighting the lawsuit.

‘California grown’

A hands-off approach at the federal level on many food labeling debates has pushed the fights down to states and cities, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University.

“In the absence of strong federal regulation, people concerned about consumer issues take recourse in state legislation. As long as the FDA is forced to remain weak, expect to see a lot more such initiatives,” Nestle said by email.

California is seeing more success with a bill to fine vendors at farmers markets who do not accurately advertise where their food was grown.

As farmers markets grow in popularity, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson said he became aware that some vendors sell fruits and vegetables that were not grown on local farms. Investigations in Los Angeles showed that some farmers markets that were supposed to feature regional produce were actually selling foods imported from Mexico.

“When I found out about this, I said I’m interested in making sure that people get what they believe they’re getting at farmers markets,” said Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat who said he enjoys going to weekend markets under the W-X freeway and in Oak Park.

His Assembly Bill 1871 would require Certified Farmers Market vendors to post a sign at their booths stating “We grow what we sell,” along with the name of their farm and its county. Misleading use of the term “California Grown” or other false advertising of farmers market produce would be subject to penalties up to $5,000.

Agricultural groups largely support the measure, which they believe will boost consumer confidence in farmers markets. The bill cleared the Assembly in May with almost no opposition. It is pending in the Senate, where committee votes so far have demonstrated bipartisan support.

Sen. Alex Padilla’s bill to require that seafood sold at stores and restaurants is accurately labeled with its common name also appears to be on a smooth path to becoming law. Industry groups have not registered any opposition, and it unanimously cleared the Senate floor and the Assembly’s agricultural committee.

His SB 1138 seeks to address research that shows many restaurants serve a less-expensive kind of fish while advertising it as a pricier species. A study by a group called Oceana found that 90 percent of sushi samples in Los Angeles were mislabeled.

“The halibut you order should be the halibut that you get,” said Padilla, D-Los Angeles.

“It can be not just unfair to a consumer but downright dangerous if the seafood you’re ordering at a restaurant or grocery store is swapped out for a different species.”

The bill may be sailing along because the seafood industry is mostly made up of smaller companies, not the kind of global corporations that make soda, cereal and snack foods, said Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor of public health at the City University of New York. He wrote a book called “Lethal but Legal” that examines how major corporations – including those that make food, tobacco and guns – have shaped public policy in ways that advance their business objectives but harm public health.

Freudenberg said his research found that “the more industry got concentrated, the more they used their power to shape the market, by withholding information, setting prices or setting the terms on what they choose to communicate with the public.”

When it comes to seafood, he said, “it’s not a consolidated organized industry. They would have a harder time lobbying, making campaign contributions, using their clout to expand business interests at the expense of health or well-being or consumer information.”

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