Consumers Eat Blind While Congress Feasts on Campaign Cash
By Taylor Lincoln
When shopping for food, the most basic ingredient a consumer needs to help choose between products is a label. So why isn’t there a label noting the country of origin for meat – just as you can learn whether your shirt was made in China?
Consumers want mandatory country-of-origin labeling for food products, commonly known as COOL. A recent public opinion poll of 1,000 people shows that an overwhelming majority of consumers – 85 percent – favor labeling that will tell them where their food is raised or produced.1 Additionally, 74 percent support the idea of Congress making such labeling mandatory, and 55 percent have “little or not much trust” in the meat, seafood, produce and grocery industries to voluntarily provide country-of-origin information. These findings are similar to a 2002 survey published in The Packer, a trade journal.2
If Congress were listening to the public, the COOL program would have been in place a year ago – on Sept. 30, 2004. That is the date the 2002 Farm Bill mandated the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to require industry to begin mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef, lamb, pork, fish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and peanuts. The label would be found on foods sold in grocery stores and would state the food’s country of origin. (For meat, the animal would have to be born, raised and slaughtered in the United States to get the “Product of U.S.” seal.)
Mandatory COOL was one of the most significant wins for family farmers and consumers in the controversial 2002 Farm Bill. But Big Agribusiness, especially the meat and grocery industries, doesn’t want consumers to know where their food comes from, and it worked to kill COOL before it ever got started. First, agribusiness interests tried to use the regulatory process at the USDA and the White House to undermine support for the measure, including by mislabeling COOL as having few benefits but costing billions of dollars. Next, it got Congress through the more secretive appropriations process to delay implementation of the law by two years – to Sept. 30, 2006 – for everything covered by the law except fish (COOL for seafood went into effect in April 2005). And the House agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year 2006, which will soon be negotiated with the Senate, would delay for an additional year a mandatory COOL program for meat.
Meanwhile, key lawmakers are trying to change COOL into a voluntary program, legislation that 65 members of the House and Senate are sponsoring. Voluntary labeling has been an option for two years, yet few food processors and meatpackers have been willing to participate.
As corporate consolidation of agriculture continues to drive family farmers out of business in record numbers, more of our food supply is controlled by a small group of companies. These companies don’t want to give ranchers and farmers a desperately needed way to identify their crops and livestock as products of the United States. They seem to be nervous – and rightfully so – that consumers won’t agree with their vision of shifting food production to the developing world, where labor and land are cheap, and environmental, worker safety and pesticide rules are more lenient.
This Public Citizen investigation illustrates how Big Agribusiness used millions of dollars in lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions, and a network of Washington insiders with close connections to the Bush administration and Congress, to undercut country-of-origin labeling in the regulatory process, get lawmakers to significantly delay implementation of the requirement and come perilously close to effectively killing it by turning the program into a voluntary one for industry.
Major findings of this report include:
- Twenty-one companies and trade organizations that are avowed foes of the mandatory COOL law, and have registered to lobby against it, have spent a total of $29.2 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch on COOL and other issues from 2000 to 2004. These groups are some of the biggest names in agribusiness and include the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Wal-Mart Stores, Cargill, Tyson Foods, American Meat Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
- These 21 companies have marshaled an army of at least 160 lobbyists to oppose COOL. Among these lobbyists, at least 45 – or 28 percent – previously held positions in the federal government, including at least 10 who worked for the Agriculture Department, in agriculture- related positions on House or Senate committees, or both. Three are former members of Congress who have lobbied on COOL. Others, such as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, have used their golden political Rolodexes to further their clients’ wishes.
- Key lobbyists from the meat industry who fought COOL before it became law were directly hired to fill strategic positions at the USDA, which was charged with crafting the regulations to implement COOL, including conducting a cost-benefit analysis that could make or break support for the rule. They are:
- Dale Moore, Chief of Staff to both Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Secretary Mike Johanns. Moore is the former executive director of the NCBA, and a former legislative director of the House Agriculture Committee.
- Charles Lambert, Deputy Under Secretary for USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and the former chief economist of and a lobbyist for the NCBA. Lambert’s position at USDA put him in charge of supervising the Agricultural Marketing Service, which was responsible for writing the rules for a mandatory COOL program. By estimating an initial one-year implementation cost of up to $3.9 billion, with few benefits, the rules served to bolster critic’s views that COOL would be too expensive to warrant implementing.
- Mary Waters, Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations. Before accepting her position at USDA, Waters worked as a lobbyist for ConAgra, where lobbying against COOL was among her responsibilities. Waters, whose USDA job was to lobby Congress, presumably assisted in successfully convincing lawmakers to postpone implementation of COOL for two years and more recently to consider passing legislation to make it a voluntary program.
- COOL opponents had to pay the piper if they expected Congress to reverse its mandate of 2002 to require country-of-origin labeling. Nineteen of the 21 groups pumped $12.6 million into the coffers of congressional candidates and into the treasuries of the national parties in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 election cycles. The biggest givers were Wal-Mart Stores, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which anteed up more than a million dollars each.
- At least five of the anti-COOL organizations included in this study (Cargill, Food Marketing Institute, Sam Kane Beef Processors, Safeway and Wal-Mart Stores), furnished Bush’s 2000 or 2004 campaign with “Rangers” (individuals who collected at least $200,000 for his campaign) or “Pioneers” (individuals who collected at least $100,000 for his campaign). They raised at least $100,000 during the 2000 campaign and $600,000 for Bush’s re-election.
- These companies and trade associations have steered their campaign contributions disproportionately to the 50 representatives and 14 senators who are supporting legislation that would make COOL a voluntary program. While COOL sponsors account for only about one-in-ten members of Congress (12 percent), they have received more than one-fourth of the contributions (28.2 percent) from the COOL opponents.
- COOL opponents have placed most of their bets on Republicans. Across all of Congress, the groups have sent 78.2 percent of their contributions to the GOP. But when restricted just to co-sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation, Republicans received 82.8 percent compared to the Democrats’ 17.2 percent. The contrast is even starker if one excludes the COOL foes’ contributions to five Arkansas Democrats who have been courted aggressively by Arkansas- based Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods. Then, the COOL foes’ contributions to Republican sponsors have outpaced those to Democratic sponsors 92 percent to 8 percent.3
- Well-placed Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have been the two House ringleaders in the effort to delay, and ultimately derail, COOL. And they have been copiously supported by agribusiness interests.
- Bonilla collected more than $167,000 from the COOL opponents during the 2000, 2002 and 2004 election cycles, ranking him No. 1 among the 65 sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation. It’s no wonder. As the chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, Bonilla secured a delay in the COOL program start date by two years, until 2006. Also, he got the House to delay implementation of COOL for meat products to 2007 – a matter that as of mid-September 2005 had not yet been finalized with the Senate.
- Bonilla’s delaying tactics have enabled Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to build support for his legislation that would end the mandatory labeling program and make it voluntary – at least for meat products – effectively killing it. Goodlatte’s actions have greatly pleased industry, which has given him more than $103,000 in the last three election cycles. This ranks him No. 3 in the amount of contributions COOL opponents have given to sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation.
• Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the voluntary COOL bill. He has received $38,250 from the COOL opponents, all of which was contributed during his inaugural 2002 Senate race. COOL foes may have relied on a special connection to lasso their man. Among the lobbyists employed by the NCBA to work on the COOL issue in the second half of 2004 was Colin Woodall. Until April of that year, Woodall worked for Cornyn on agriculture appropriations issues. The voluntary COOL bill Cornyn introduced in June 2005 appears to match the NCBA’s demands to a T.
It is easy to understand how money works against consumers’ interests in politics by examining the schizophrenic behavior of the Arkansas congressional delegation. Lawmakers there were among the friendliest to the proposition of country-of-origin labels on food so long as they applied to the state’s catfish industry, which has suffered in recent years by an influx of a catfish- like species from Vietnam. But once the delegation got its way on mandatory fish labels, which took effect in April 2005, it lost its stomach for the broader COOL legislation. All six members of the Arkansas delegation are co-sponsoring legislation that would end the requirement for COOL labels on meat. These members received $338,500 in contributions from the COOL foes in the last three election cycles. Of this, $240,250 came from Arkansas-based Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, which helps explain their No. 1 and No. 6 ranks, respectively, among the COOL foes in overall contributions to sponsors of voluntary COOL legislation. Also, among sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation, the Arkansas delegation accounted for the only three Democrats to rank among the top 30 recipients of contributions from COOL opponents: Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Rep. Marion Berry, and Rep. Mike Ross.