Food Lobbies and U.S. Dietary Guidance Policy

Marion Nestle. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In April 1991, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) withdrew from publication its Eating Right Pyramid, a new food guide for the general public. Despite official explanations that the guide required further research, its withdrawal was widely believed to have been prompted by pressure from meat and dairy lobbying groups who objected to the way the Pyramid displayed their products (Burros 1991b; Combs 1991; Sugarman and Gladwell 1991; Nestle 1993a).

This incident focused attention on a continuing political and ethical dilemma in American government: The rights of individuals guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution versus the social good. In this case, the dilemma involved the inherent right of private industries to act in their own economic self-interests versus the best judgments of health authorities as to what constitutes good nutrition for the public. The Pyramid controversy also focused attention on the dual and potentially conflicting USDA mandates to protect U.S. agricultural interests and to issue dietary recommendations to the public (Nestle 1993b).

To address such dilemmas, this chapter reviews the history of dietary guidance and lobbying policies in the United States, describes the principal food lobbies, and presents examples of ways in which they have influenced—or have attempted to influence—federal dietary advice to the public. Finally, it discusses options for correcting improper, sometimes unconscionable, food lobby influence on U.S. nutrition policies.

U.S. Dietary Guidance

From its inception in 1862, the USDA was assigned two roles that have led to the current conflict of interest: to ensure a sufficient and reliable food supply, and to “diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word” (USDA 1862). In the early 1890s, the USDA began to sponsor research on the relationship between agriculture and human nutrition and to translate new discoveries into advice for consumers. By 1917, the agency had produced at least 30 pamphlets that informed homemakers about the role of specific foods in the diet of children and adults.

The USDA’s first dietary recommendations established principles that govern its policies to this day. The agency recommended no specific foods or combinations of foods. Instead, it grouped foods of similar nutrient content into five general categories—fruits and vegetables, meats, cereals, sugar, and fat (Hunt and Atwater 1917). Such a recommendation was intended to encourage the purchase of foods from the full range of American farm products, for by 1921, improvements in agriculture had led to greater availability of many different kinds of foods, any one of which was said to contribute to wholesome and attractive diets (Hunt 1921).

Thus, the recommendation was supported by food and agricultural producers who suspected that the market for their products was becoming limited as the U.S. food supply was already sufficient to provide adequate food to all of its citizens; consequently, any increase in use of one food commodity would have to occur at the expense of others (Levenstein 1988). During the next 35 years, the USDA produced many pamphlets based on the food group approach, all emphasizing the need to consume foods from certain “protective” groups in order to prevent deficiencies of essential nutrients (Haughton, Gussow, and Dodds 1987). The number of recommended food groups, however, varied over the years in no consistent pattern (Nestle and Porter 1990).

At least some of the variation in the number of food groups reflected concerns about the impact of dietary advice on consumer purchases. A Great Depression-era food guide, noting that producers want “to know how much of different foods may well appear in the diets of different consumer groups, and to what extent consumption may rise or fall as the economic situation changes,” increased the number of food groups to 12 and included, for the first time, milk as a separate category (Stiebeling and Ward 1933).

In the 1950s, national nutrition surveys indicated that the diets of many Americans were below standard for several nutrients. To help the public choose foods more wisely, USDA nutritionists proposed a simplified guide based on four groups—milk, meats, vegetables and fruits, and breads and cereals—which, for the first time, would specify the number and size of servings.

Prior to its release, the USDA invited leading nutrition authorities to review the guide. Food industry representatives were also sent drafts because “it was felt that food industry groups would have a vital interest in any food guide sponsored by the government” (Hill and Cleveland 1970). Dairy organizations were pleased with the treatment given to milk and milk products, but “meat industry groups were unhappy about the serving size indicated for meat …[t]hey pointed out that this size is smaller than average” (Hill and Cleveland 1970). Despite these complaints, the controversial serving sizes (two daily portions of 2 to 3 ounces cooked meat) were incorporated unchanged into the final version of what became known as the Basic Four (USDA 1958). This guide remained the basis of USDA nutrition policies for the next 20 years. Except for the minor concern about portion size, food producer groups supported USDA efforts to promote consumption of more—and more varied—food products.

This relationship changed when policymakers became aware that nutritional deficiencies had declined in prevalence and had been replaced by chronic diseases related to dietary excesses and imbalances. Early reports on the role of dietary fat in atherosclerosis were published in the mid-1950s (Page, Stare, Corcoran et al. 1957), advice to reduce caloric intake from fat in 1961 (American Heart Association 1961), and recommendations for dietary changes and public policies to reduce coronary heart disease risk factors in 1970 (Inter-Society Commission 1970). These last recommendations called for significant reductions in overall consumption of fat (to 35 percent of calories or less), saturated fat (to 10 percent), and cholesterol (to 300 milligrams per day).

The 1977 Farm Bill (Public Law 95-113) specified that the USDA was to be responsible for a wide range of nutrition research and education activities, including dietary advice to the public. In 1988, in an effort to ensure that the federal government speak with “one voice” when it issues dietary recommendations, the House Appropriations Committee reaffirmed USDA’s lead agency responsibility for this activity (U.S. House of Representatives 1988). As dietary recommendations shifted from “eat more” to “eat less,” the USDA’s dual responsibilities for protecting agricultural producers and advising the public about diet created increasing levels of conflict.

Although this conflict was often expressed in terms of the scientific validity of diet-disease relationships, it derived from the profound economic implications of dietary recommendations (Timmer and Nesheim 1979). Foods of animal origin—meat, dairy products, and eggs—have provided much of the total fat and saturated fat, and all of the cholesterol, in the U.S. food supply. In 1990, for example, meat provided 32 percent of the total fat and 40 percent of the saturated fat, and dairy products 12 and 20 percent, for a combined total of 44 and 60 percent, respectively (Raper 1991). Thus, advice to consume less fat and cholesterol necessarily translated into reduced intake of meat, dairy products, and eggs. By 1977, this message was well understood by nutrition scientists, dietitians, and consumer activists (U.S. Senate Select Committee 1977c) and was reflected in declining sales of whole milk and eggs (Putnam 1991). As these trends continued and as beef sales also began to decline, food producer lobbies became much more actively involved in attempts to discredit, weaken, or eliminate dietary recommendations that suggested using less of their products.

Lobbies and Lobbyists

In tribute to their level of influence, lobbies and lobbyists have been viewed as constituting a third house of Congress (Schriftgiesser 1951) or fourth branch of government (Berry 1984). But its members are appointed rather than elected, paid to represent private (and thus not always public) interests and to pursue those interests through activities that are often not in full view of the general public. Thus the actions of lobbies can and do raise concerns about their potential to corrupt democratic political processes (American Enterprise Institute 1980).

Definition of Lobbying

In the broadest possible sense, lobbying includes any legal attempt by individuals or groups to influence government policy or action; this definition specifically excludes bribery. All lobbying efforts involve three common elements: an attempt to influence governmental decisions, representation of the views of special interest groups, and communication with government officials or their representatives. Therefore, a lobbyist is an individual who communicates with a government official on behalf of a third party in the hope of influencing federal decisions. When surveyed, lobbyists have stated that their one common characteristic is similar to that of most others connected with the political process: They try to influence governmental decisions in some way (Milbrath 1963).

Lobbying in the United States

The history of attempts to control lobbying reflects basic tensions in the American political system. From its beginnings, this system has granted individuals the right to express political views publicly, to petition government regarding such views, and to organize on behalf of them. Elected officials of representative governments must listen to constituents, yet special interest groups constantly pressure the government to enact policies that may benefit relatively few constituents. Attempts to control such pressures, how-ever, have been viewed as infringements of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, and Congress has found it difficult to draft acceptable laws to curb lobbying abuses (Milbrath 1963). Despite substantial public and congressional concern about many lobbying activities, there is little consensus as to how such activities might be controlled (Berry 1984).

This dilemma appeared early in U.S. history. James Madison, writing of the “dangerous vice” of factions (the term he used for lobby groups), observed that they arise from causes inherent in human nature and in the unequal distribution of property. Relief from the “mischiefs of faction,” according to Madison, would derive from the principles of majority rule proposed for the federal republic. A faction “may clog the administration, it may convulse the society,” but under the terms of the Constitution, “it will be unable to execute and mask its violence” (Madison 1787: 45).

Indeed, from the earliest years of the new republic, public exposures of excessive and dishonest lobbying were followed by investigations and demands for regulation of interest groups. In response, Congress made sporadic attempts to control lobbying abuses. Proposed legislation typically passed in one house or the other but failed to become law. Congressional leaders were unable to agree on legislation that would curb dishonest lobbying yet permit individual rights to free speech and petition (Congressional Quarterly 1968).

Table VII.6.1 summarizes selected landmarks in the history of U.S. lobbying. As early as 1829, individuals who frequented the lobby of the state capitol in Albany in order to seek favors from New York legislators were called “lobby-agents.” By 1832, Washington journalists were using the term “lobbyists” in the current meaning of the term. In 1877, frequent abuses led the state legislature of Georgia to declare lobbying to be a crime, and Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin, and New York passed antilobby legislation between 1890 and 1905. Beginning in 1911, nearly every Congress attempted to probe and control lobbying and related activities. Between 1935 and the early 1940s, Congress enacted laws requiring employees of public utilities, the merchant marine, and foreign governments to register and report political contributions, and it prohibited labor unions from making such contributions. Such actions, however, failed to make any real progress in controlling lobbying abuses (U.S. Senate Special Committee 1957; Congressional Quarterly 1965).

Legislative Mandate

When Congress finally did address interest group practices, it made lobbying legal. The 1946 Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act protected lobbyists’ rights and required only that persons paid to lobby, or the organizations paying them, disclose their identities and sources of funds. The act, which is still in force, requires lobbyists to register and to file with Congress sworn quarterly reports disclosing the amounts of money they receive or spend, the individuals to whom they pay funds, the purposes of these payments, and the specific legislation that they are supporting or opposing (Schriftgiesser 1951; Congressional Quarterly 1965).This law, considered vague by virtually all authorities (U.S. Senate Committee 1991), was reduced further in coverage by challenges in federal courts. In a 1954 case, U.S. v. Harriss, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act, albeit through a narrow interpretation; it limited the law’s applicability only to individuals who solicited or received money for the purpose of lobbying members of Congress (Congressional Quarterly 1965).

Table VII.6.1. Selected landmarks in the history of U.S. lobbying Sources: Schriftgiesser (1951), U.S. Senate Special Committee (1957), Congressional Quarterly (1965, 1968), American Enterprise Institute (1980), and “Registered Lobbyists” (1991).

1787 James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, warns
of the dangers of self-interested “factions” to gov-
ernment processes.
1792 First Amendment to Constitution guarantees right
to free speech, assembly, and petition to Congress.
1829 The term “lobby-agent” is used to describe a per-
son who frequents the lobby of the state capitol
in Albany in order to seek special favors.
1832 Washington journalists first use the term “lobbyists.”
1877 Georgia’s constitution declares lobbying to be a
1890-1900 Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin, and New
York pass anti-lobby legislation.
1907 Congress forbids corporations to make political
campaign contributions in federal elections.
1919 Internal Revenue Service rules lobbying expendi-
tures are not deductible from federal income
taxes by businesses or individuals.
1935 Public Utilities Holding Company Act prohibits
political contributions by utility companies and
requires individuals who do make contributions
to register and report.
1936 Merchant Marine Act requires similar registration
and reporting.
1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act imposes registra-
tion and reporting requirements for political con-
1943 Smith-Connolly War Labor Disputes Act bars polit-
ical campaign contributions in federal elections
by labor unions during war emergency.
1946 Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, adopted as
Title III of the Legislative Reorganization Act of
1946 (P.L. 79-601), requires paid lobbyists to reg-
ister and file financial reports.
1947 Taft-Hartley Act prohibits political campaign con-
tributions by labor unions and corporations.
1954 Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of 1946
act in U.S. v. Harriss; limits law to individuals paid
by a third party to communicate directly with
members of Congress to influence legislation.
1956 In connection with a bribery attempt, Superior
Oil Company attorneys become the first—and
only—individuals to be convicted for failure to
register under the 1946 act.
1957 Senate investigating committee finds 1946 act fail-
ing to achieve the disclosure aims that it was
designed to accomplish.
1968 Congressional Quarterly lists 23 former senators
and 90 former congressmen who have registered
as lobbyists since 1946.
1974 Amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act
authorize the formation of Political Action Commit-
tees (PACs) to fund congressional campaigns.
1980 Congress attempts to revise the lobbying act.
1991 More than 7,000 individuals register as lobbyists.

These decisions leave much room for ambiguity; they can be interpreted as permitting interest groups to lobby congressional staff or officials and staff of cabinet departments and their agencies, and to decide for themselves whether and how much they need to report. The act defines no special enforcement procedures, even though it specifies criminal penalties for noncompliance. In its entire history, the act has resulted in only one conviction (Congressional Quarterly 1968). Despite repeated attempts to strengthen its provisions (American Enterprise Institute 1980), the 1946 act remains in force only as modified by U.S. v. Harriss. Thus, the view that lobbying legislation is unenforced, unenforceable, and widely ignored continues to prevail (U.S. Senate Committee 1991).

Registered Lobbyists

The extent to which the lobbying act may be ignored is uncertain. During the 20 years following its passage, an average of 400 lobbyists registered and reported contributions that amounted to $4 to $5 million annually, but these figures were considered low because of the many loopholes in reporting requirements (Congressional Quarterly 1968).The number of registrations grew rapidly from 1960 to 1980, partly in response to expansion in the size and complexity of government. In 1963, the government included 10 major cabinet departments and 70 major agencies, and Congress employed 7,700 aides. By 1991, these numbers had increased to 14, 140, and 20,062, respectively. The number of registered lobbyists doubled between 1976 and 1986 (Browne 1988).At the beginning of the 1990s, 7,000 to 8,000 individuals registered as lobbyists, many representing multiple organizations or causes (Registered lobbyists 1991; U.S. Senate Committee 1991).

The interests represented by lobbyists encompass every conceivable aspect of American corporate and private enterprise: banks; corporations; legal, public relations, and life insurance firms; educational institutions; professional societies; advocacy groups; city, state, and national governments; defense, health, computer, energy, drug, chemical, paper, tobacco, transportation, travel, and, of course, food industries. They all pay individuals to represent their interests to Congress. There is no industry too small, no group too isolated, and no opinion too extreme to lack a professional lobbyist. Lobbying is a multimillion-dollar industry with enormous impact on government decisions (U.S. Senate Committee 1991).

Food Lobbies

The Agricultural Establishment

By the end of World War II, farmers and food producers had come to view the USDA as their department and its secretary as their spokesman. Producers, together with USDA officials and members of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees, constituted the “agricultural establishment” and ensured that federal policies in such areas as land use, commodity distribution, and prices promoted their interests (Paarlberg 1964).The control exercised by producer groups over USDA and congressional actions was so complete that both the secretary of agriculture and the president were said to be excluded from any significant role in policy decisions (Kramer 1979).

The perpetuation of this system was guaranteed by the congressional seniority system and the strong representation on agriculture committees of members from farm states. Committee membership rarely changed hands. Allen Ellender (D-La), for example, chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee for a total of 18 years, and his successor, Herman Talmadge (D-Ga), held the chair for 10 more. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss), first elected to Congress when Franklin Roosevelt was president, chaired the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee for so long that he was referred to as “the permanent secretary of agriculture” (Morgan 1978b); he was elected to his twenty-seventh term of office in 1992 and resigned the committee chair he had held since 1949 when he finally left office in 1994 (Binder 1995).

By the early 1970s, this system weakened as new constituencies demanded influence on agriculture policies. A combination of bad weather, poor harvests in foreign countries, and massive purchases of U.S. grain by the Soviet Union had led to increased food costs and consumer complaints (Kramer 1979). Agriculture was gaining in importance in the U.S. economy, and the food industry was expanding to include processors and marketers as well as producers (Morgan 1978b). Responsibility for providing food assistance to the poor was assigned to the USDA (Morgan 1978a). In response to demands from these constituencies, the House expanded the membership of its Agriculture Committee to include representatives from urban areas in 1974, and, in 1977, the agriculture committees of both houses were assigned jurisdiction for policies and programs related not only to agricultural production, marketing, research, and development, but also to rural development, forestry, domestic food assistance, and some aspects of foreign trade, international relations, market regulation, and tax policies (Knutson, Penn, and Boehm 1983).

Food Lobbyists

The number of food lobbying groups reflected the expansion in constituencies. In the 1950s, 25 groups of food producers dominated agricultural lobbying, but by the mid-1980s, 84 groups lobbied on food issues (Browne 1988). In the early 1990s, food lobbies included a multiplicity of groups, businesses, and individuals attempting to influence federal decisions. They represent producers, growers, marketers, processors, and distributors of every imaginable fruit, vegetable, cereal, baby food, diet aid, nutritional supplement, sweetener, and product grown or manufactured at the local, state, or national level. They also represent manufacturers of pesticides, feeds, and fertilizers; professional and health organizations; and food, nutrition, antihunger, and welfare activists (Registered lobbyists 1991). Table VII.6.2 lists specific examples of such groups. The number of active food lobbyists is uncertain. A 1977 study identified 612 individuals and 460 groups lobbying on food and agriculture issues (Guither 1980). A cursory review of current lobbyist registrations suggests that 5 to 10 percent of lobbyists are concerned with such issues.

Lobbying Methods

Personal Contacts

No matter whom they represent, all lobbyists use similar strategies to gain access and influence. Of these methods, lobbyists rank personal contacts as the most effective means of gaining access to government officials. These contacts are established through office visits, meetings, participation on advisory boards, testimony at hearings, social occasions, fundraising sessions, and performance of favors, as well as through the engagement of other individuals and groups to perform such favors. Lobbyists also organize meetings, provide technical advice, contribute to election campaigns, stage media events, employ public relations firms, organize public demonstrations, and encourage lawsuits (U.S. Senate Special Committee 1957; Milbrath 1963; Browne 1988).

Technical Expertise

Virtually all blueprints for successful lobbying emphasize the importance of knowledge and credibility (deKieffer 1981; Berry 1984). These attributes establish lobbyists as technical experts who provide Congress with well-researched advice on issues related to proposed legislation. The value of this expertise is, in part, responsible for a congressional reluctance to control lobbying activities.

Financial Contributions

Individual and corporate contributions and gifts to members of Congress are strictly regulated by the Federal Election Campaign Act. Small items such as lunches, books, awards, liquor, samples, and theater tickets are considered acceptable (deKieffer 1981). Also considered legal are very large payments for administrative costs, fundraising events, travel expenses, and honoraria. Thus in 1991 several food and agriculture corporations legally donated $100,000 or more each to the Republican Party (Babcock 1991).

An analysis of privately funded travel among members of the House of Representatives in 1989-90 identified nearly 4,000 trips sponsored by lobby groups, two-thirds of them corporations or trade associations.

Table VII.6.2. Selected examples of food lobbying groups Sources: Guither (1980) and Browne (1988).

Commodity producer organizations
American Soybean Association
American Sugar Beet Growers Association
Florida Sugar Cane League
National Association of Wheat Growers
National Broiler Council
National Cattlemen’s Association
National Corn Growers’ Association
National Fisheries Institute
National Milk Producers’ Federation
National Peanut Growers Group
National Pork Producers Council
Rice Millers’ Association
United Egg Producers
United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association
Processing, manufacturing, and marketing
American Frozen Food Institute
American Meat Institute
Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association of the U.S.A.
Corn Refiners Association
Food Marketing Institute
Grocery Manufacturers of America
National Food Processors Association
National Frozen Food Association
National Soft Drink Association
Peanut Butter and Nut Processors’ Association
Public interest groups and professional societies
American Cancer Society
American Dietetic Association
American Heart Association
American School Food Service Association
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Food Research and Action Center
Public Voice for Food and Health Policy
Society for Nutrition Education
Private food producers
Pizza Hut
Safeway Stores

In particular, agriculture lobbies sponsored 390 trips and paid more than $500,000 in honoraria to House members during the 101st Congress; of these trips, 239 went to members of the House Agriculture and Appropriations Committees. The most frequent corporate-sponsored traveler was Charles Stenholm (DTex), a senior member of the Agriculture Committee. Of his 50 paid trips, agricultural interest groups sponsored 37; they also provided $38,250 in honoraria (McCauley and Cohen 1991).

Election Campaign Contributions

In 1974, amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act authorized formation of Political Action Committees (PACs) by corporations and other groups to collect and disburse voluntary campaign contributions. Although the law limits the amount of money that can be contributed to any one candidate, it does not restrict the number of candidates to whom contributions can be made or the number of PACs that can contribute to any one candidate. In 1974-5, 608 PACs contributed $12.5 million to election campaigns; by 1982, 3,371 PACs, nearly half of them corporate, were contributing $83 million (Berry 1984); and by the election of 1989-90, nearly 4,700 PACs were contributing more than $370 million to candidates (Federal Election Commission 1991b).

The size of the contribution to any one candidate typically varied from $500 to $2,000; however, such contributions could add up to substantial amounts. In 1989-90, Senators Robert Dole (R-Kan), Jesse Helms (R-NC), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), all members of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, received respectively $308,000, $790,000, and $1.5 million in PAC contributions. These amounts all derived from contributions of $5,000 or less (Federal Election Commission 1991a).

Relatively few PACs represent food and agriculture interests. In 1978, 82 such PACs were identified, 46 of them producer groups contributing a total of $1.4 million. The largest contributor was the Associated Milk Producers PAC, which distributed a total of $456,000 among 37 candidates for the Senate and 185 candidates for the House (Guither 1980). PACs representing the dairy industry remain relatively large contributors; an analysis by Common Cause of Federal Election Commission data found that dairy groups contributed nearly $1.8 million to candidates in 1989-90. In comparison, beef PACs contributed just over $326,000 in that election. In the period from 1985 to 1990, dairy PACs contributed a total of $5.5 million and beef PACs $864,000 to election campaigns, but these amounts were greatly exceeded by the $25, $23, and $12 million donated by the real estate and construction, insurance, and banking industries, respectively (Common Cause, personal communication).

In the 1989-90 election campaign, food and agriculture PACs, though still in the minority, were well represented. Contributions came from the sugar, meat, dairy, egg, soft-drink, wine and liquor, rice, fruit, vegetable, seed, and snack food industries, as well as from PACs representing growers, distributors, manufacturers, and promoters. As an example, Table VII.6.3 provides a partial listing of food and agriculture PACs that contributed to the 1989-90 campaign of Senator Harkin. PACs representing consumer, health, or public interest groups are rare. As noted by Senator Dole in an earlier context, “there aren’t any Poor PACs or Food Stamp PACs or Nutrition PACs or Medicare PACs”(Berry 1984).

Nevertheless, experts differ on whether the small amount of money contributed by any one PAC is sufficient to buy influence. Some political commentators believe that the power of PACs is overrated (Bowers 1991), whereas others view it as insidious, largely because members of the House and Senate who hold important positions on powerful committees become “… more beholden to the economic interests of their committee constituents than to the interests of their district residents or to the President or party” (Califano 1992).

Table VII.6.3. A partial list of food and agriculture Political Action Committees (PACs) contributing to the 1989-90 election campaign of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a member of the Appropriations and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committees Source: Federal Election Commission (1991b).

Amalgamated Sugar Company
American Agriculture Movement
American Crystal Sugar Association
American Dietetic Association
American Meat Institute
American Sheep Industry
American Sugar Cane League
American Sugarbeet Growers
Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Workers
Dairymen Inc.
Diamond Walnut Growers
Florida Sugar Cane League
Food Marketing Institute
General Mills
Hawaiian Sugar Planters
Land O’ Lakes, Inc.
Mid-America Dairymen
Milk Marketing Inc.
National Broiler Council
National Cattlemen’s Association
National Farmers Union
National Pork Producers Council
National Restaurant Association
National Turkey Federation
Ocean Spray Cranberries
Peanut PAC of Alabama
Southern Wine and Spirits
Sunkist Growers
United Egg Association
United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association
Wheat for Congress
Wine Institute

One study found that members of the House of Representatives who received dairy PAC funds were almost twice as likely to vote for legislation to maintain price supports as those who did not; that supporters of maintenance received 2.5 times more PAC funds than opponents; and that the more PAC money members received, the more likely they were to support such legislation (Public Citizens’ Congress Watch 1982). Most experts agree that PACs give the appearance of purchasing influence, whether or not they actually do so.

Revolving Door

The transformation of government officials into lobbyists and of lobbyists into government officials is commonly known as the “revolving door.” By 1968, at least 23 former Senators and 90 former Congressmen had registered as lobbyists for private organizations (Congressional Quarterly 1968). Job substitutions between food producer lobbies and the USDA have been especially frequent and noticeable. At the USDA, as many as 500 agency heads and their staff members are chosen on the basis of political party, support from key politicians, and other political criteria rather than expertise. Such appointments are strongly influenced by special interest groups (Knutson et al. 1983).

In 1971, for example, USDA secretary Clifford Hardin traded places with Earl Butz, who was director of the Ralston Purina Company; Butz became USDA secretary and Hardin went to Ralston Purina. One report identified several assistant secretaries, administrators, and advisers who joined the USDA from positions with meat, grain, and marketing firms or who left the agency to take positions with food producers (Jacobson 1974).The chief USDA negotiator arranging for private companies to sell grain to the Soviet Union in 1972 soon resigned to work for the very company that gained the most from the transaction (Solkoff 1985). More recently, the appointment of JoAnn Smith, a former president of the National Cattlemen’s Association, as chief of the USDA’s food marketing and inspection division raised questions about apparent conflicts of interest when she approved the designation “fat-reduced beef” for bits of meat processed from slaughtering by-products and opposed an American Heart Association proposal to put a seal of approval on certain meat products low in fat (McGraw 1991).

Generic Advertising (Checkoff Programs)

In an effort to counteract declining consumption trends, Congress passed a series of food promotion and research acts that require producers of 15 specific commodities—among them beef, pork, dairy products, milk, and eggs—to deduct or “checkoff” a fee from sales. These strictly enforced fees are then used to promote the commodities (Becker 1991). Through these and more than 300 state programs, about 90 percent of all U.S. producers contributed more than $530 million to promote about 80 farm commodities in 1986 (Blisard and Blaylock 1989).

The two largest national checkoff funds are dairy and meat; they generated $194 and $84 million, respectively, in 1986 (Blisard and Blaylock 1989). About half the funds are distributed to state commodity boards and the other half to national promotion and research boards. The beef checkoff began as a voluntary program generating $31,000 in 1922. In the 1970s, as beef consumption began to decline, the National Cattlemen’s Association started lobbying for a compulsory program through a campaign that involved PACs, letter writing, and personal visits to members of Congress by hundreds of cattle farmers. The legislation passed in 1985; beef lobbies are especially effective because cattlemen are distributed among a great many states, and beef sales amount to nearly $22 billion annually (Wilde 1992). The beef checkoff generated nearly $90 million in 1991 (Cattle-men’s Beef 1991).

The various checkoff boards collect and spend the funds, award contracts, and sponsor advertising, research, and education programs. Although the legislation prohibits use of the funds for lobbying, the distinction between promoting a product to consumers and to lawmakers can be subtle. The boards are closely affiliated with lobbying groups (Becker 1991), some even sharing office space. The Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, for example, shared an address with the National Cattlemen’s Association, and the National Pork Board shared offices, staff, and telephone services with the National Pork Producers Council. The legislation actually specifies that a certain percentage of checkoff funds must be allocated to the commodity groups who nominate members of the promotion boards to be appointed by the USDA (Cloud 1989).

Although checkoff funds are supposed to be used for research as well as advertising, only a small fraction is used for that purpose. Between 1986 and 1989, the Beef Board spent nearly $106 million, of which only about 5 percent went toward research and only 1.4 percent toward development of leaner products. At the same time, the board paid more than $1 million each to movie stars Cybill Shepherd and James Garner for participating in a beef advertising campaign (Parrish and Silverglade 1990).

Checkoff programs attempt to convince consumers to choose one type of food product over another (Becker 1991). The Meat and Beef Boards, for example, aim to build demand for red meats and meat products (National Live Stock and Meat Board 1987); encourage consumers to view beef as wholesome, versatile, and ever lower in cholesterol; and educate doctors, nurses, dietitians, teachers, and the media about the nutritional benefits of beef (Cattlemen’s Beef 1990). Similarly, the Dairy Boards promote consumption of cheese, milk, butter, and ice cream as the best sources of calcium and other nutrients (Westwater 1988). For the most part, studies have shown a positive relationship between such campaigns and sales for a wide range of commodities. From 1984 to 1990, for example, generic advertising was associated with significant increases in consumption of milk and cheeses (Blisard, Sun, and Blaylock 1991). The Beef Board has attributed the industry’s increased relative strength to the checkoff program (Cattlemen’s Beef 1991).

Checkoff supporters maintain that these programs benefit farmers at little cost to the USDA and provide useful information to consumers. Of concern, however, is the potential of checkoff programs to increase food costs and competition between commodity groups and to promote products high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Of even greater concern is the ability of lobbying groups to use the millions of dollars available from check-off funds to influence food and nutrition policies (Becker 1991).

Brand Advertising

In 1991, the annual cost of all food product advertising was $8 billion (Becker 1991). In that year, food companies that were among the top 100 U.S. advertisers spent $3.9 billion to promote their products. Three billion dollars of this amount was spent on television commercials, one-third of them for snacks and soft drinks. The leading national advertiser, Procter and Gamble, which sells food products, among others, spent nearly $2.3 billion on advertising, and McDonald’s, eighth in rank, spent more than $764 million (“The 100 Leading National Advertisers” 1991).

Academic and Professional Support

Food companies routinely fund academic departments, research programs, individual investigators, and meetings, conferences, journals, and other activities of professional societies. For example, at least 16 food or nutritional supplement companies provide funding for the Journal of Nutrition Education; 22 support educational activities of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition; and Kraft General Foods supports a consumer hot line staffed by the American Dietetic Association.

One survey of university nutrition and food science departments identified frequent food industry payments to faculty for consulting services, lectures, membership on advisory boards, and representation at congressional hearings. This same study noted several departments receiving significant portions of their research budgets from food company grants. These faculty and departments may disclose corporate connections willingly but are rarely required to do so; they are usually grateful for the support and deny that it affects their views in any way (Rosenthal, Jacobson, and Bohm 1976).

Such conflicts of interest are not confined to the United States; a British study found that 158 of 246 members of national committees on nutrition and food policy consulted for, or received funding from, food companies (Cannon 1987). Such relationships naturally raise questions about the ability of academic experts to provide independent opinions on policy matters that might affect their sources of funding.

Food Lobbies in Action

Dietary Goals for the United States

Aware of evidence that diets high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, and salt were associated with chronic diseases, the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (D-SD), held hearings on dietary determinants of obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases in 1973, and produced a report on nutrition and chronic disease in 1974. In July 1976, the committee held further hearings on the role of American food consumption patterns in cancer, cardiovascular disease, and obesity (U.S. Senate Select Committee 1977e).

On the basis of evidence presented at these hearings, the staff produced the February 1977 report Dietary Goals for the United States. Consistent with American Heart Association recommendations, the report established six goals for dietary change: Increase carbohydrate intake to 55-60 percent of calories; decrease fat to 30 percent, saturated fat to 10 percent, and sugar to 15 percent of calories; reduce cholesterol to 300 milligrams per day and salt to 3 grams per day. To achieve these goals, the committee advised consumption of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, and fish, but less meat, eggs, butterfat, whole milk, and foods high in fat (U.S. Senate Select Committee 1977a).

Many groups objected to one or another of these recommendations, but the advice to “eat less” brought immediate protest from the groups most affected—cattlemen, the dairy industry, and egg producers. The cattle industry, especially in McGovern’s home state, pressured the committee to withdraw the report. “Here, after all, was the Congress of the United States telling the public not to eat their products” (Broad 1979). Meat and egg producers demanded and obtained additional hearings to express their views. In these hearings, a pointed exchange between Senator Robert Dole and Mr. Wray Finney, president of the National Cattlemen’s Association, established the basis for compromise on the key recommendation (No. 2) to eat less meat:

Senator Dole: I wonder if you could amend No. 2 and say “increase consumption of lean meat”? Would that taste better to you?

Mr. Finney: “Decrease is a bad word, Senator.”

(U.S. Senate Select Committee 1977d).

Committee members who represented states with large producer constituencies demanded changes in the report. McGovern “said he did not want to disrupt the economic situation of the meat industry and engage in a battle with that industry that we could not win” (Mottern 1978). The report was revised to state, “choose meats, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake” (U.S. Senate Select Committee 1977b).These statements and later versions of recommendations concerning meat intake are listed in Table VII.6.4.

When Nick Mottern, the staff member who wrote the original report, objected to the changes, he was asked to leave his position (Mottern 1978). Shortly thereafter, McGovern was quoted as saying about McDonald’s and other fast-food companies that “on the whole, quick foods are a nutritious addition to a balanced diet,” leading one reporter to suggest that “still another industry has thrown its weight around” (Broad 1979).

Despite such compromises, the Dietary Goals report established the basis of all subsequent dietary recommendations and altered the course of nutrition education in the United States. This contribution, however, was the Select Committee’s last. Shortly after release of the report, the Senate abolished the committee and transferred its functions to the Nutrition Subcommittee of the newly constituted Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry as of the end of the year (Hadwiger and Browne 1978). In 1980, McGovern lost his bid for reelection.

Table VII.6.4. Evolution of federal recommendations to reduce dietary fat through changes in meat consumption

Year Report, Agency Recommendation
1977 Dietary Goals, U.S. Senate Decrease consumption
of meat
1977 Dietary Goals, 2d ed., Choose meats …
U.S. Senate which will reduce
saturated fat intake
1979 Healthy People, DHEW Relatively … less
red meat
1979 Food, USDA Cut down on fatty
meats (2 servings
of 2-3 ounces each)
1980 Dietary Guidelines, Choose lean meat
1985 Dietary Guidelines, 2d ed., Choose lean meat
1988 Surgeon General’s Report, Choose lean meats
1990 Dietary Guidelines, Have 2 or 3 servings,
3d ed., USDA and DHHS with a daily total
of about 6 ounces
1991 Eating Right Pyramid, Choose lean meat
USDA (2-3 servings or
5-7 ounces)

Healthy People

In 1979, reflecting the emerging consensus among scientists and health authorities that national health strategies should be “dramatically recast” to emphasize disease prevention, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (DHEW) issued Healthy People. This report announced goals for a 10-year plan to improve the health status of Americans. Its nutrition section recommended diets with fewer calories; less saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar; relatively more complex carbohydrates, fish, and poultry; and less red meat. The report, noting that more than half the U.S. diet consisted of processed foods rather than fresh agricultural produce, suggested that consumers pay closer attention to the nutritional qualities of such foods (USDHEW 1979).

Because dietary advice to restrict red meat and be wary of processed foods was certain to attract notice, Healthy People was released in July without a press conference as one of the final official acts of Joseph Califano, who had been fired from his position as DHEW secretary by President Carter the month before. Nevertheless, the report elicited a “storm” of protest from the meat industry. The president of the National Live Stock and Meat Board was quoted as saying, “The report begins with ‘the health of the American people has never been better,’ and we think it should have ended right there” (Monte 1979: 4).

Healthy People became the last federal publication ever to suggest that Americans eat less red meat. When later asked about this issue, Surgeon General Julius Richmond speculated that subsequent editions of this report might advise a switch to lean meat rather than a decrease in intake of red meat in general (USDA and USDHEW 1980).

USDA’s Food Books

Because USDA nutritionists found diets that met the Dietary Goals to be “so disruptive to usual food patterns,” they developed a series of publications under the generic title Food to inform the public about ways to modify the calorie, fat, sugar, and salt content of diets (Wolf and Peterkin 1984).This first USDA publication to address diet and chronic disease, Food: The Hassle-Free Guide to a Better Diet, was notable for its caution:

Many scientists say the American diet is contributing to some of the chronic diseases that hit people in later life.… Other scientists believe just as strongly that the evidence doesn’t support such conclusions. So the choice is yours. (USDA 1979)

USDA staff revised the Basic Four to display the food groups in a vertical format with the vegetable/ fruit and bread/cereal groups located above the dairy and meat groups. At the bottom, they added a fifth group of foods—fats/sweets/alcohol—that keep bad “nutritional company” and are high in calories but low in essential nutrients and fiber. To reduce fat intake, they suggested, “cut down on fatty meats.”

Food was the most requested USDA publication in 1979 (Carol Tucker Foreman, personal communication). After the 1980 election, however, under pressure from representatives of the meat, dairy, and egg industries who objected to the negative advice about fat and cholesterol and the placement of their products below fruits, vegetables, and grains, Food was not reprinted and all action on subsequent publications in the series was suspended. Eventually, the USDA gave its completed page boards for Food II to the American Dietetic Association, which published them as two separate booklets in 1982 (“ADA to Publish” 1982). Food became the last federal publication to use the phrase “cut down” in reference to meat (see Table VII.6.4).

1980 Dietary Guidelines

In February 1980, the USDA and DHEW announced joint publication of Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The recommendations were to eat a variety of foods; maintain ideal weight; avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; eat foods with adequate starch and fiber; avoid too much sugar and too much sodium. Those who consume alcohol should do so in moderation (USDA and USDHEW 1980). Because these guidelines had replaced the unacceptable “eat less” phrases with the vague “avoid too much,” agency officials did not expect objections from food producers. As stated by USDA secretary Bob Bergland during the press conference: “They feared we might issue edicts like eat no meat, or eggs, and drink less whole milk. They have been waiting for the other shoe to fall. There is no shoe” (Greenberg 1980).

Indeed, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) commented that the Guidelines are “simple, reasonable and offer great freedom of choice,” and the American Meat Institute (AMI) called them “helpful,” noting that they provide “a continuing and central role for meat” (USDA and USDHEW 1980). But for certain food producers, especially the meat industry, even these mild recommendations went too far; they lobbied Congress to end funding for the publication (Broad 1981). One commentator observed that the purpose of the USDA is to make it easier for farmers to make money, a goal that is not well served by permitting federal agencies “to run loose on such politically sensitive matters as red meat, butter, and eggs” (Greenberg 1980).

On the eve of Appropriation Committee hearings on the Guidelines, called in July by Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO), a coalition of 104 consumer and health organizations criticized producer efforts to suspend distribution of the publication (Haas 1980). In part, this coalition had been created in response to an attack from the quasi-federal National Research Council (NRC). In May 1980, just three months after release of the Dietary Guidelines, the NRC issued its belated response to the Dietary Goals. This report, called Toward Healthful Diets, immediately became notorious for its conclusion that advice to restrict intake of fat or cholesterol was unwarranted (NRC 1980). One explanation for this conclusion was that the report had been financed by food industry donations, and that at least 4 of the 15 Food and Nutrition Board scientists responsible for its development had been funded by egg, meat, or other food producers (Wade 1980). Shortly after the election, but before the Reagan administration assumed office, Congress established a committee to revise the Guidelines.

At this point, the demise of the Guidelines seemed virtually assured. The new USDA secretary, John Block, was an Illinois hog farmer who during his confirmation hearings had remarked that he was “not so sure government should get into telling people what they should or shouldn’t eat” (Maugh 1982).Through the revolving door, two high-level USDA positions had been filled by a former executive director of the American Meat Institute and a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Association. In addition, one of Block’s first acts had been to close USDA’s Human Nutrition Center, a research unit remarkable for its promotion of consumer rather than producer interests and its linking of research to policies, such as the Dietary Guidelines (Broad 1981).

Further attacks on dietary recommendations followed the release of Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, an NRC report that had been commissioned by the National Cancer Institute during the last year of the Carter administration (NRC 1982). Food producers objected to the recommendation to reduce fat to 30 percent of calories by decreasing intake of high-fat meats. Livestock prices had dropped following release of the report, leading one food industry representative to observe that advice on diet and cancer “could be very harmful long term to the meat industry” (“Livestock Prices Fall” 1982: 44). In response to a request from the National Pork Producers Council, seven members of Congress called for an investigation of the cancer report (U.S. General Accounting Office 1984), and USDA political appointees drafted a report rejecting the 30 percent fat recommendation (Zuckerman 1984).

1985 Dietary Guidelines

When the committee to revise the Dietary Guidelines was finally appointed, five of the six USDA nominees appeared to be closely connected to the food industry (“USDA Readies” 1983). When informed of the committee’s composition, a prospective Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) appointee threatened to resign, stating that he had “no intention of being part of a process that guts the guidelines” (“Dietary Guidelines Review” 1982: 6). To the surprise of critics, however, the committee eventually made only minor changes in the text (USDA and USDHHS 1985), and USDA secretary Block, joined by the National Cattlemen’s Association, endorsed the Guidelines, admitting that “all of us have changed in our thinking” (“Reagan Administration” 1985: 2).

This change in views was principally the result of an increasing consensus on the scientific basis of diet and disease relationships, as expressed in three groundbreaking reports released in 1988 and 1989. The first was the NRC’s Designing Foods, which recommended reducing fat intake to 30 percent of calories and challenged the meat industry to develop methods to raise leaner beef; remarkably, this report had been requested by the USDA and issued with the full cooperation of meat producers (NRC 1988). It was followed by the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health (USDHHS 1988) and the 1989 NRC Diet and Health study (NRC 1989). All three of these reports identified reduction of fat—particularly saturated fat—as the primary dietary priority. Because none of these reports elicited much critical comment, consensus on dietary recommendations appeared to have been achieved (Nestle and Porter 1990).

1990 Dietary Guidelines

Despite the apparent consensus among medical and scientific authorities, USDA political appointees argued that recent research had established a need to reexamine the Dietary Guidelines. Invoking the lead agency mandate, they pressed for and obtained appointment of a committee to write a third edition. As appointed, the new committee consisted of nine nutrition scientists and physicians with few apparent ties to the food industry. Of 13 groups who submitted written comments during committee deliberations, however, 10 represented food producers, trade associations, or organizations allied with industry (USDA 1990).

This process revealed that the current consensus on dietary recommendations had been achieved at the expense of clarity. To address concerns that certain foods are increasingly perceived as “bad” and unfit for inclusion in healthful diets, the committee altered the phrasing of the Guidelines to make their tone more positive. For the phrase, “avoid too much,” it substituted, “choose a diet low in.” For the phrase “choose lean meat …,” it substituted, “have two or three servings of meat … with a daily total of about 6 ounces.” Its one significant achievement was to suggest upper limits of 30 percent of calories from fat and 10 percent from saturated fat—precisely those recommended by the 1977 Dietary Goals. Lest these figures appear too restrictive, however, the new edition emphasized:

[T]hese goals for fats apply to the diet over several days, not to a single meal or food. Some foods that contain fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, such as meats, milk, cheese, and eggs, also contain high-quality protein and are our best sources of certain vitamins and minerals. (USDA and USDHHS 1990)

Unlike the previous two editions, the 1990 Dietary Guidelines elicited no noticeable complaints from food producers.

The Food Guide Pyramid

In 1991, the interference of food lobbies in dietary guidance policy again came to public attention, this time over a food guide with a simple, pyramid-shaped graphic. This project had originated a decade earlier in response to criticisms that consumers would have difficulty planning menus that met dietary recommendations (Peterkin, Kerr, and Shore 1978). In the heat of the controversy over the 1980 Dietary Guidelines, USDA nutritionists had rushed a menu guide into print just prior to President Reagan’s inauguration (USDA 1981).

With the Guidelines under revision, the nutritionists began to develop a new guide that would specify the numbers and sizes of food servings needed to meet its recommendations. They presented this guide in a wheel format for use in an American Red Cross course in 1984 (Cronin, Shaw, Krebs-Smith et al. 1987). Food industry experts objected to the study guides prepared for the course and requested extensive changes in the text (Zuckerman 1984); the wheel also proved difficult for the public to understand. Thus, USDA staff initiated a consumer research study to identify a more useful format; they continued to use the portion sizes and numbers presented in the wheel in subsequent publications such as the 1990 Dietary Guidelines.

The research demonstrated that consumers preferred the Pyramid over many other designs. Its graphic displays grains and cereals at the wide base, vegetables and fruits in the band above, meats and dairy foods in the narrow upper band, and fats and sweets in the narrow peak. The band width represents the number of portions of each food group recommended by USDA. But unlike earlier graphics, the Pyramid format indicates that the daily diet should include more servings of grains, fruits, and vegetables than of meats, dairy products, and fats and sweets.

Preparation of the Pyramid graphic and accompanying brochure began in 1988. During the next two years, these materials were reviewed extensively, publicized widely, and fully cleared for publication; they were sent to the printer in February 1991 (“A Pyramid Topples” 1991). In April, representatives of the National Cattlemen’s Association saw a Washington Post report on the Pyramid (Gladwell 1991) and joined other producer groups to protest that it “stigmatized” their products and should be withdrawn immediately (Burros 1991b; Combs 1991; Sugarman and Gladwell 1991). Two weeks later, the newly appointed USDA secretary, Edward Madigan, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, announced that the Pyramid required further testing on children and poorly educated adults and postponed its publication. His explanation for this decision, however, was widely disbelieved (“A Pyramid Topples” 1991). Instead, observers attributed his actions to a direct response to pressures from meat producer lobby groups.

During the following year, the USDA issued a new and far more expensive contract to retest alternative designs on children and low-income adults. While this research was in progress, newspaper and magazine reporters wrote repeatedly of the Pyramid incident as an example of the conflict of interest created by the dual mandates of the USDA to protect American agricultural interests and to advise the public about food choices; they also used the incident as an illustration of the excessive and heavy-handed influence of lobbyists in federal policy decisions (Nestle 1993a).

The research tested the impact of alternative designs—particularly bowl shapes—that were preferred by most food industry representatives. When the messages conveyed by bowl designs were tested against those conveyed by pyramid designs, the results were nearly indistinguishable. At that point, the USDA was faced with a dilemma; the agency could choose the original Pyramid and risk embarrassment over the delay, additional costs, and continued opposition from food producers, or it could choose the bowl design for what might be interpreted as political rather than scientific reasons. Eventually, the USDA chose the pyramid design, perhaps because press reports kept public attention focused on the issue.

In April 1992, USDA released its Food Guide Pyramid. This publication seemed quite similar to the previous version. Its most significant difference concerned the numbers of recommended servings. These were relocated outside the triangle and reset in boldface type that two to three daily servings of meat and dairy foods were still recommended (USDA 1992). This change, which gave no indication that the servings were meant to be small and an upper limit, pleased food producers who made no further complaints about this publication (Nestle 1993a).

1995 Dietary Guidelines

Lobbying from meat and dairy groups was noticeably absent during preparation of the fourth edition of the Dietary Guidelines (USDA and USDHHS 1995). The recommendation for meat was similar to that offered in previous editions—”Choose two to three servings of lean … meats”—and the accompanying text suggested the benefits of eating moderately from the meat and beans group and avoiding sources of saturated fat in the diet. For the first time, the Dietary Guidelines recommended meals with rice, pasta, potatoes, or bread at the center of the plate and included a section on vegetarian diets. Nevertheless, release of this report elicited no comments from meat producers, perhaps because the meat serving was defined as 2 to 3 ounces, in effect extending the recommended intake range to 9 ounces per day.

Concluding Comments

Classic studies have viewed lobbying as a healthy influence within the political system that keeps Congress informed about issues, stimulates public debate, and encourages participation in the political process. These views find undue lobby influence unlikely, as “it is virtually impossible to steal or buy a public policy decision of any consequence in Washington” (Milbrath 1963).

Nonetheless, the history of dietary guidance policy records the increasing involvement of food lobbies—and the incorporation of their views—into federal recommendations for chronic disease prevention. In 1956, USDA staff drafted the Basic Four and, as a courtesy, permitted industry representatives to review it. But since 1980, food industry representatives increasingly have participated in the design of dietary guidance materials as well as in their review. This change in role occurred as the goal of dietary recommendations shifted from prevention of nutrient deficiencies to prevention of chronic diseases and from “eat more” advice to “eat less,” and as food lobbies more vigorously defended their products against such advice.

Through their connections in Congress and the USDA, and use of their strong financial base, food lobbies successfully convinced government policymakers to alter advice about meat, a principal source of dietary fat, from “eat less” to “choose lean” to “have 2-3 portions.” Yet this policy shift occurred concurrently with increasing scientific consensus that reduced fat intake would improve the health of the public, that the 30 percent target level has been a political compromise, and that evidence all along has supported a level of 20 to 25 percent or less (Burros 1991a; Wynder, Weisburger, and Ng 1992). To some extent, it seems likely that contradiction between scientific consensus and federal advice is responsible for Americans’ failing to reduce their fat intake (McGinnis and Nestle 1989; Putnam 1991; Nestle 1995).

It must be emphasized that lobbying strategies are entirely legal and available to consumer groups as well as to food producers. What should be clear from this discussion, however, is that producer groups possess far greater resources for lobbying activities than do either consumer groups or the federal government. The hundreds of millions of dollars available to the meat and dairy lobbies through checkoff programs, and the billions of dollars spent on food advertising, far exceed the $1.3 million spent by the USDA on dietary guidance and research in 1991 (USDA 1991). As one commentator stated, it is unfortunate that “good advice about nutrition conflicts with the interests of many big industries, each of which has more lobbying power than all the public-interest groups combined” (Jacobson 1974).

The controversy over the Eating Right Pyramid demonstrates that the connections between members of Congress, USDA officials, and food lobbies must continue to raise questions about the ability of federal officials to make independent policy decisions. Individuals concerned about such issues might consider whether the USDA’s conflicts of interest have so impaired its ability to educate the public about diet and health that such functions should be transferred to an agency less tied to food industry groups. Also worth consideration is more forceful advocacy of consumer perspectives to Congress, reform of lobbying laws, reduced dependence on PAC expenditures, tighter restrictions on the revolving door, disclosure of funding sources by members of advisory committees, and education of the public on the extent of lobbying influence.