Key Legislative Victories Are Within Reach
By Bob Gatty
The Snack Food Association is closing in on some major victories for the industry in the 2006 session of Congress, but much depends on what happens after members return from the August recess — and perhaps even on the actions of an expected “lame duck” session following the November election.
While there is still much to be done, SFA president and CEO Jim McCarthy and public affairs consultant Michael Torrey believe significant progress has been made on several key issues that are crucial to snack food companies, and both give substantial credit to the grass roots efforts of many SFA members.
A major objective, the National Uniformity for Food Act, was approved by the House of Representatives earlier this year and is poised for consideration by the Senate — an important achievement, especially for companies in California faced with challenges regarding acrylamide. And important progress was made on the Commonsense Consumption Act, which would bar lawsuits against food companies based on accusations that their products made the plaintiff fat.
But McCarthy says he is especially proud that SFA was able to convince the Senate Appropriations Committee in late July to address an unexpected problem that threatens to cost companies that operate delivery trucks and vans millions of dollars collectively. Because the committee approved a technical corrections amendment in the transportation appropriations bill, there is a better than an even chance that the remedy will become law when the appropriations measure is enacted.
“We spearheaded the effort on this issue and led the coalition of other organizations on Capitol Hill to develop and implement a strategy that would result in a solution,” McCarthy said. “SFA was the only food association that was really involved in reversing this mistake, and it means millions of dollars to the industry.”
Unexpected Overtime Pay
In early spring, it was discovered that when lawmakers approved the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU), they inadvertently provided a new right to overtime pay for thousands of drivers of commercial motor vehicles that weigh under 10,001 lb. According to a memorandum developed by attorneys for SFA, this could affect many snack food companies that operate fleets of delivery trucks and vans.
After SFA discovered the mistake, “we went to work on Capitol Hill and in the Department of Transportation to find a solution,” McCarthy said. “Fortunately, we had on board transportation consultant Earl Eisenhart, and he has been a major asset. We were able to develop support within the Senate Appropriations Committee, and our amendment was approved unanimously. That was a big achievement.”
Many SFA members heeded the organization’s request to contact members of the committee and ask for their support.
“Our members were just great, and it made a difference,” McCarthy said. “It always does when they hear from people from back home — especially people who operate businesses that provide jobs for their constituents.”
A similar response was credited by Torrey and McCarthy for helping to move the National Uniformity bill to the point where there is a possibility now that it can become law before the year is out, but the SFA president says the work is not done.
A hearing held by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in early August “was an excellent forum to help members of Congress and the public understand the importance of providing a method to achieve uniform food safety and labeling requirements nationwide, rather than the current patchwork of differing and sometimes conflicting laws that now exists,” McCarthy said.
National Uniformity is extremely important to the snack foods industry, he stressed, because it addresses the acrylamide issue for potato chip manufacturers in California. It would bolster consumer confidence and eliminate confusion, as well, because information would be consistent state-to-state, with rules based on science and formulated by the Food and Drug Administration
“The only thing we can control is the amount of effort we put into this,” McCarthy said. “Members of SFA need to pick up the phone and call their senators and say this has to happen. This is an issue that has a direct bottom line impact on SFA member companies. It has to be resolved.”
Torrey pointed out that traditionally, the National Uniformity legislation has had bipartisan support — several Democrats have been co-sponsors, in fact. “But election-year politics has made this not necessarily be the case, especially in the Senate,” he added.
According to some political analysts and polls, the Republicans’ chances of picking up votes appear to be slim, and there is an outside chance that the GOP could lose control of one or both houses.
“We can only deal with what we know,” Torrey said. “The House has already passed this bill. We take the bird-in-the-hand, and we try to get this passed this year in the Senate and through Congress.”
The Cheeseburger Bill
A problem for that measure, as well as the Commonsense Consumption Act (the “Cheeseburger Bill”), is that very few actual legislative days remain before the election. And then, following the election, a “lame duck” session is expected, so there is no telling what will happen then or what will even be considered.
“I think in the lame duck, they will be trying to pass spending bills to keep the government running, and whatever other must-pass legislation still remains,” Torrey explained. “If the Democrats take control, they may want as little done as possible.”
Backers of the Cheeseburger Bill, including the SFA, were able to get the measure approved by the House this year, and it also is pending in the Senate.
“We’re working on it because it could have a bottom line impact in the future,” Torrey explained.
Other important issues that remain, according to Torrey, include issues involving obesity, such as pressures to restrict sale of certain foods in schools or as part of the Food Stamp or other government feeding programs.
We in the industry know that there is not an easy solution,” Torrey said. “There are those who say that an amendment here or an amendment there will make it go away.
“But they are wrong,” Torrey added, pointing out that efforts by some members of Congress to “distinguish good foods from bad” have so far been unsuccessful, but as Congress considers the new Farm Bill next year, they could very well emerge once again. The food stamp program is authorized in that legislation.
“SFA is working with other partners who feel like that is a can of worms that you don’t want to open,” Torrey noted.
However, there are those with credibility in the mainstream political community, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Arkansas Gov. Bill Huckabee and former President Bill Clinton, who have become outspoken critics of current policies and advocates of change.
“We’re going to be very involved with the Farm Bill, and we’ll be doing everything we can to make sure that foods are not discriminated against,” said Torrey, who pointed out that during the past several months the industry has worked to block legislation sponsored by Rep. Tom Harken (D.-Iowa) that would change the definition of “foods of nutritional value.”
“It’s an assault on our industry, and SFA will be extremely vigilant to make sure that bad policies don’t happen to really good programs,” he added.