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As Senate Nears Vote on Agriculture Agency’s Appropriations, Industry Cash Speaks Louder than Consumers’ Voices

Sept. 13, 2005

As Senate Nears Vote on Agriculture Agency’s Appropriations, Industry Cash Speaks Louder than Consumers’ Voices

New Analysis Shows How Millions of Dollars Spent in Lobbying and Elections Has Helped Thwart Key Food Labeling Law

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the Senate prepares to vote this week on its version of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) budget, a new Public Citizen investigation released today 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 thwart a consumer-friendly provision mandating country-of-origin labeling, popularly known as COOL.

Mandatory country-of-origin labeling would require beef, pork, lamb, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, fish, and peanuts to be labeled with where they were raised, grown or produced. Although the 2002 Farm Bill stipulated that the new program be implemented by September 2004, mandatory COOL has been postponed by Congress – where lawmakers are under intense pressure from the meat and grocery industries – for two years. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to once again delay COOL’s implementation for meat until 2007. Industry is strongly lobbying the Senate to either delay the funding for the USDA to work on COOL or turn it into a “voluntary” program. 

“If you ask consumers, they’ll tell you they want COOL, but it’s apparent that Congress isn’t listening. We’ve already watched members of the House dismiss their constituents by voting to delay this important consumer act. We urge the Senate not to follow in their footsteps,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s food program. “Consumers deserve to know where their meat is produced, and in light of all the problems our food system faces on a daily basis, COOL would serve as a vital precautionary measure.”

Public Citizen analyzed donations from 19 companies and trade associations, each of which has announced opposition to mandatory country-of-origin labeling and has registered to lobby against COOL. They have contributed a total of $12.6 million to candidates for Congress and in soft money to the Republican and Democratic parties since 2000.

These companies have focused their giving on 64 members of Congress who have sponsored a bill to replace the mandatory country-of-origin requirement with a voluntary one, which is considerably weaker and does not empower consumers with the right to know where their food is from. Instead, it offers industry a way to hide critical information from the public. These 64 members, accounting for only 12 percent of Congress, have received 28 percent of contributions to candidates from the COOL foes.

Among the investigation’s other findings:

  • Twenty-one companies and trade organizations that outspokenly oppose 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, Cargill, Tyson Foods, the American Meat Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
  • These 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, many working on key agriculture issues such as COOL.
  • Key lobbyists from the meat industry who fought COOL before it became law later were hired in strategic positions at the USDA, which was charged with crafting the regulations to implement COOL. Under their watch the agency estimated an initial one-year implementation cost of up to $3.9 billion, with few benefits, which served to bolster critic’s views that COOL would be too expensive to warrant implementing.
  • 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.
  • Well-placed Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have been the two ringleaders in the effort to delay, and ultimately derail, COOL. And they have been well supported by agribusiness interests. Bonilla has received more than $167,000 from COOL opponents in the last three election cycles, making him their top beneficiary. As the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, he has twice delayed the start date for the COOL program. Bonilla’s delaying tactics have enabled Cornyn and Goodlatte, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to build support for their legislation, which would make the mandatory labeling program 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, ranking him No. 3 in the amount of contributions COOL opponents gave to sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation.

One revealing example of the influence of money in politics lies in Arkansas, where lawmakers strongly supported country-of-origin labels for all food because of 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 fish labels, support disappeared for broader COOL legislation. All six members of the delegation are co-sponsoring a bill that would end the requirement for COOL labeling of meat. They received $338,500 from COOL foes in the last three election cycles. Also, among sponsors of the voluntary COOL legislation, the Arkansas delegation accounted for the only three Democrats among the top 30 recipients of contributions from COOL opponents: Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross.

“It is easy to understand how money works against consumers’ interests in politics by considering that the COOL legislation made it through Congress with a strong show of support a few years ago, only to be corralled by a strong industry lobbying effort capped by a cornucopia of campaign cash,” said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

To read the report, Tabled Labels: Consumers Eat Blind While Congress Feasts on Campaign Cashclick here.