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Finding lawmakers with a sweet tooth was never much of a challenge for snack food makers and soda companies. They knew the score, and for years, the industries relied on the GOP to push their agenda. Just last year, the Snack Food Association, the lobbying arm of the snack food industry, tried to save some of its biggest Republican supporters during the midterm elections. The group doled out thousands of dollars through its political action committee, sending Sen. Rick Santorum, whose home state of Pennsylvania boasts the Hershey chocolate empire and is home to several members of the association, a check for $4,000. Santorum, known to keep a never-empty candy jar in his Senate office, was a major player in helping to garner support for legislation that benefited the snack food industry. But he, of course, was shown the door, along with several of his snack-supporting colleagues. Now the Democratic takeover of Congress has put the snack and soda companies in something of a crunch. And it couldn’t have come at a less advantageous time. The industry faces a battle over proposed federal school nutrition guidelines that could essentially kick the snack and beverage industry off of school property. Now the industry is going back to the drawing board to secure support across the aisle with a lobbying blitz next week to put the brakes on a congressional effort that could force the removal of some snack foods from school vending machines. The industry will argue that it has policed itself effectively and will continue to do so. “This could definitely hurt our businesses,” says James McCarthy, chief lobbyist of the Snack Food Association. But school nutrition advocacy and parents groups aren’t worried about the industry’s bottom line. Instead, they point to the growing child obesity epidemic. The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), would give the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to set updated regulations on foods sold outside school lunchrooms, including food in vending machines. There are currently no federal standards for school foods other than for school menus. Though no specific minimum standards are laid out in the legislation, the bill requires the USDA to update the decades-old definition of foods with minimal nutritional value. Industry lobbyists say foods currently in school vending machines aren’t likely to meet the standards that could be set. They insist that the voluntary guidelines some companies currently follow are a sign that the industry cares about nutrition in schools and should be left alone. “If the USDA is required to set school nutrition standards, there is a potential threat to our business. But it’s too early to say now. We support voluntary guidelines. We think they stand on science, and we think they are reasonable,” says Galen Reser, lobbyist and vice president of North American government affairs for PepsiCo. HEALTHY CHOCOLATE? With child obesity rates rising, the snack, confectionery, and beverage industries saw the mandatory guidelines coming. Instead of waiting on the sidelines, the groups decided to pre-emptively impose voluntary guidelines. Last fall, food and beverage companies such as PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup Co., Dannon, and Mars Inc. joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, in creating the voluntary guidelines, which set limits on the amount of sodium, trans fat, and calories of foods sold in schools. So far, chocolate and candy manufacturer Mars, which generated $18 billion in revenue last year, is the only candy giant to join the group. “We took a look at the guidelines put forth by the Alliance and realized that none of our food products fit those guidelines,” says Marlene Machut, director of communications for health and nutrition at Mars. “So we tried to figure out a way to create a better image in schools.” Over the past decade, Mars has spent millions of dollars on its own scientific studies to prepare for a new line of “healthy” chocolates. So far, Mars has already rolled out 2,200 vending machines filled with its new Generation Max line of dark chocolate — which it says is heart-healthy, with less sodium and fewer calories than its regular chocolate bars — to schools in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, says Machut. “We’ve been working really hard on getting these products in schools over the last couple of years,” Machut says. Part of that work came from Patton Boggs lobbyists. Mars was the firm’s top client last year, paying it $2.3 million, and the top spender on lobbying in the food and beverage industry. Knowing the industry was facing possible federal guidelines, Patton Boggs provided Mars with “strategic advice on how Mars could best position itself on health and nutrition issues,” said Aubrey Rothrock III, a Patton Boggs lobbyist, in an e-mail. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition, health, and science advocacy group leading a campaign to get junk food out of schools nationwide, contends that the voluntary guidelines won’t be as effective as federal legislation and that vending machine companies also have some responsibility for their role in school nutrition. “These voluntary guidelines shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for strong federal action to get junk food out of schools,” says Margo Wootan, the center’s nutrition policy director. During the 1990s, nutrition in school cafeterias became a front-burner issue. States began adopting policies that demanded food manufacturers comply with their campaigns to offer healthier foods in school lunches. Not wanting to lose market share, the companies did just that. Though the change was not noticeable to students in lunch lines, the chicken patties on their tray had whole-grain breading. Pizza was adorned with a whole-grain crust and reduced-fat cheese. Things seemed to be changing. “They have made drastic changes in the last five to 10 years to come up with products to meet national standards,” says Erik Peterson, government affairs specialist at the School Nutrition Association. But foods sold outside the lunchroom told a different story. For years, the Agriculture Department had the authority to enforce what filled school vending machines. In 1983, federal courts stripped the USDA of that power, says Peterson. Because of that, school districts have allowed soft-drink companies to place their own vending machines inside schools for multimillion-dollar contracts, an effort criticized by school nutrition advocates. “This is something we’re working on,” says Peterson. Parents groups such as the National Parent Teacher Association have also jumped on board to rally support behind the measure. “I haven’t talked to any lawmaker who is outright opposed to this,” says Todd Haiken, an NPTA lobbyist. “There are some that are skeptical because they don’t want to interfere with the market, but we’re trying to explain to them that the market, when it comes to children, is not an appropriate market to be in schools. You’ll get very little argument that Cheetos are nutritional.” A LITTLE SUGAR Maybe not, but the candy and beverage industry is hoping to show lawmakers that it is making an effort to police itself. Industry company leaders and lobbyists will meet with Democratic and Republican lawmakers next week to forge new friendships. “We’re doing a fly-in to Capitol Hill to try to work on gaining some allies to support our view on voluntary guidelines,” says McCarthy, who is also president and CEO of the Snack Food Association. “There’s currently no need for federal standards. The voluntary guidelines are working. And it could affect the businesses of those snack companies that are trying to make it work.” Last year the Snack Food Association spent a total of $124,000 on lobbying, with more than half of that amount going to Michael Torrey & Associates. Prior to opening his lobbying practice, Torrey spent 15 years on Capitol Hill and served the Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary for congressional relations at the USDA. PepsiCo’s also planning on pressuring members such as Harkin, co-sponsor of the bill. Pepsi has a large presence in Iowa and is already meeting with the senator and his staff to convince Harkin — the chairman of the Agriculture Committee overseeing the measure, which supporters say could be folded into this year’s farm bill — that voluntary standards work. “Harkin is clearly the main person we talk to,” says Reser.
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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