Where the dollars go: Lobbying a big business for large food and beverage CPGs


The top food and beverage companies are opening their pocketbooks in a big way to strengthen and maintain their influence in Washington, D.C., as they fight to protect their businesses with billions of dollars in revenue at stake.

A review of 30 food and beverage companies who spent the most on lobbying in 2020 showed they collectively doled out $38.2 million, roughly inline with their average during the past six years, according to data provided to Food Dive by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Coca-Cola has been the biggest spender when it comes to money targeted annually for lobbying since 2015, and last year was no exception. The world’s largest nonalcoholic beverage company spent $5.83 million last year on 24 lobbyists. While substantial, this is below its mean of $7.04 million during the past six years. 


“Lobbying is sort of like insurance in that you just do it. Because as the old adage goes, if you’re not at the table, you might be on the menu.” 

Clare Brock

Assistant professor of American politics and public policy, Texas Woman’s University


AB InBev spent the second largest amount in 2020 with $5.61 million on 53 lobbyists, compared to its recent average of $4.55 million. While AB InBev spent less money than Coca-Cola in 2020 and lobbied on the same number of topics, it addressed more specific issues within many categories such as taxes, the beverage industry and trade — a potential explanation as to why it used more than twice as many lobbyists.

Snack and beverage manufacturer PepsiCo was third at $3.69 million for 24 lobbyists, versus an average of $3.52 million in recent years. The next 10 companies have averaged between $1 million and $3 million on lobbying since 2015, the data showed.

“Lobbying is sort of like insurance in that you just do it. Because as the old adage goes, if you’re not at the table, you might be on the menu,” said Clare Brock, an assistant professor of American politics and public policy at Texas Woman’s University.

Companies spend millions on lobbying each year

Total dollars expended on lobbying by food and beverage companies from 2015 to 2020

While average spending among the biggest companies was largely flat from 2015 to 2020, money targeted by the 10 biggest trade groups for lobbying has fallen precipitously during that same time. In 2015, $21.9 million went to lobbying before declining to just over $15 million in 2019 and 2020. 

Much of the decline was tied to a sharp decrease from the Consumer Brands Association, which represents CPG companies responsible for manufacturing a diverse mix of products including food and beverage offerings. It spent $2.3 million last year compared to $8.5 million in 2015, when it was known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The trade group attributed the reduction to an adoption of a “pro-consumer agenda” and the decision to focus on issues that unite the industry — as opposed to GMA’s focus on food-specific topics — that allow for a more efficient use of its dollars behind CEO Geoff Freeman.

Every issue is in play

The food and beverage industry’s lobbying efforts encompass a wide swath of issues.

An analysis of topics lobbied on by the largest food and beverage companies found taxes and trade routinely rose to the top. In 2020, both of these issues ranked among the top two for seven of the top 10 companies, with the remaining three CPGs prioritizing at least one of them. Agriculture, transportation, the environment, federal budget/appropriations and labor/antitrust issues also have been priorities in recent years.   

“They lobby about anything that’s going to affect their business, no matter how remote,” said Marion Nestle, a former professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, who has researched lobbying in the soda industry. “I can’t think of a single area of food or nutrition policy that isn’t subjected to lobbying.”

Trade groups spend substantial amounts on lobbying annually

Total dollars expended on lobbying by major organizations representing the food and beverage industry from 2015 to 2020

Most of the food and beverage companies contacted by Food Dive, including Mondelēz International, Tyson Foods, PepsiCo and AB InBev, either declined to discuss their lobbying efforts or pointed to their industry trade group.  

Coca-Cola directed inquiries about its contributions to its website, where it notes that lobbying is a way for companies to ensure that their views get heard, or at least considered. “The list of things we focus on day-to-day is practically endless given the size and scope of our business,” Coca-Cola said.

Still, the world’s largest nonalcoholic beverage maker noted that much of its discussion with policymakers deals with environmental policy, health and wellness, and taxes — the latter being the issue the company has lobbied on most since at least 2015. Coca-Cola is mired in a multiyear tax dispute with the U.S. government over how it reports income from some overseas markets that potentially could cost the soda maker billions of dollars if it doesn’t prevail.

General Mills, the Minneapolis-based maker of Cheerios, Nature Valley bars and Progresso soup, said the company has “a long history of engagement in public policy” with regards to “core business concerns” like trade and taxes as well as sustainability, nutrition and food safety, among other issues.

Lee Anderson, vice president of government relations for General Mills, said in an email “that engagement in the public policymaking process protects our ability to make food the world loves.” He added that “it’s our job to bring the expertise of this company to those officials to help them make informed decisions.”

A spokesperson with General Mills pointed to the company’s support for the Food Safety Modernization Act and regenerative agriculture as issues where it is actively engaged with lawmakers.  

Lobbying behind the scenes

Critics argue that lobbying unfairly benefits large corporations whose deep pockets and connections get them special access to lawmakers, regulators and other influential officials.

The connections create invaluable relationships and make it more likely that companies can mount a defense to quash potential legislation. For example, they could argue that a proposed bill would lead to job losses in a congressional district or a tax increase might force a business to move.

“Anybody that has opposite viewpoints or different viewpoints doesn’t have the same kind of access,” Nestle said. “There’s plenty of evidence that companies have dozens and dozens and dozens of lobbyists and they visit every congressional representative every year, maybe more than once, depending on what’s being considered, and they’re really good at what they do.”

Critics have long argued that lobbyists frequently play a major role in influencing the outcomes of major polices being crafted by regulatory agencies or departments, or being considered through legislation by lawmakers on Capitol Hill — oftentimes behind the scenes.

Optional Caption

Sarah Silbiger via Getty Images

 

A 2015 New York Times article combed emails obtained through open records to show how Monsanto and other companies recruited academic researchers to help promote their cases. Senate lawmakers at the time were preparing to take up industry-backed legislation that would ban states from adopting laws requiring the disclosure of food produced with genetically modified ingredients. 

The lobbying efforts put forth by many large food and beverge makers at the time ultimately fell short. A year later, President Barack Obama signed legislation requiring companies to notify consumers about detectable GMO ingredients in their products. The legislation also overruled any state laws regarding GMO labeling.



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