Pitfalls Avoided, Challenges Ahead
By Bob Gatty
The SFA is poised to defend the industry as election year battles emerge.
When 2007 began, there were plenty of challenges facing the Snack Food Association and the snack food industry — a new Farm Bill with possible pitfalls to be debated in Congress, other initiatives that could have restricted snack foods in public programs and even the possibility of a federal snack tax.
As the year went on, there was increased discussion about obesity — especially in children — and worries about food safety, with legislative initiatives proposed that could have resulted in increased regulation and governmental control. There were other concerns, too, involving labor and transportation issues that would be important to the SFA member companies.
But the SFA marshaled its forces, mobilized its members and cooperated with allied organizations, and when the year came to a close, it was able to declare victory on virtually every front involving the federal government — and some states where snack taxes were proposed, as well.
“It was a very successful year despite a lot of challenges,” says Mike Torrey, the SFA’s governmental affairs consultant in Washington D.C., who cautions that 2008 will be filled with many of the same discussions regarding child nutrition, obesity and food safety as members of Congress prepare to defend their seats in the upcoming November elections.
“I think 2008 will be significant,” he predicts. “It’s an election year, and there will be a lot of issues developed on the campaign trail that will manifest themselves through at least public hearings. The groundwork will be laid for legislation to be considered in 2009.”
As a result, the composition of the new Congress that takes over in 2009 will play a major role in determining which of those initiatives that are born on the campaign trail will eventually be enacted into law. Democrats assumed control of both the House and the Senate last January, and are hoping to widen their margins; Republicans, of course, are hoping to return to power.
“When the year began, we knew the Farm Bill was going to be a big issue,” Torrey recalls. “A possible national snack tax was being proposed, as well as a single agency to regulate food — and pressure was growing for legislation describing “good food, bad food that could have been very harmful to our members.”
During the Farm Bill debate, there was discussion about limiting the choices of foods for Food Stamp recipients — an initiative that was forcefully opposed by the SFA and a coalition of other industry groups, as well as “hunger” organizations. “We were successful in stopping those early attempts in the House and then again in the Senate,” Torrey says. “We now have legislation that does not place limits on the foods from which Food Stamp recipients may choose. That was a huge success.”
Torrey points out that early in the spring, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, proposed legislation that revised the definition of “foods of minimal nutritional value,” an initiative that was promptly opposed by the SFA and targeted by SFA members who participated in the Day in D.C. Spring Summit in May.
Also on the agenda during that Washington lobbying initiative were these key issues, which defined much of SFA’s governmental affairs work during 2007:
Opposition to Country of Origin Labeling requirements for processed peanuts. The SFA had been instrumental in making sure that a two-year delay in this requirement was adopted. Those labeling requirements now take effect in September 2008, and the SFA has met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials to make sure processed peanuts are equitably treated.
Opposition to union card check legislation, which would have replaced union elections with a card check-off system. Unsuccessful in 2007, organized labor plans a major election year push in 2008.
Support for the Fair Labor Standards Act — motor carrier exemption on overtime requirements for drivers of vehicles under 10,001 lbs. The SFA continues to work in Congress to reverse new requirements that such drivers receive overtime pay for more than 40 hours per week.
Support for the National Uniformity for Food Act, which would establish national science-based standards for food labeling requirements rather than widely varying rules imposed by individual states. This initiative remains under consideration.
As concerns about childhood obesity intensified during 2008, proposals to restrict what food products could be sold in schools and during school activities began to gain traction.
A report issued by the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM) in April recommended that the government ban soft drinks, sugary snacks and some other snack foods from schools, and said those items should be replaced with foods such as fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
In place of potato chips, chocolate bars and other popular snacks, the report recommended that schools sell options such as apples, carrot sticks, raisins, low-sugar cereals, whole-grain tortilla chips, granola bars and non-fat yogurt with no more than 30 g. of added sugar.
The proposed guidelines also urged limiting the calorie content of snacks and drinks to no more than 200 per portion and switching to items that contain no trans fats, lower levels of sugar and sodium, and no more than 35% of calories from fat, less than 20 percent from saturated fat. It also recommended eliminating sports drinks, soft drinks and caffeinated drinks, and called on schools to provide free, safe drinking water or give students the opportunity to purchase non-fat or low-fat milk, or limited amounts of 100% juice.
If the guidelines are adopted, high schools could sell snacks such as baked potato chips, whole-wheat pretzels, seltzer water and caffeine-free diet soda after school hours. After the report was issued, Sen. Harkin suggested that the recommendations might be included in this year’s Farm Bill.
The SFA issued a press release expressing support for the conclusion that “action needs to be taken in the nation’s public schools to combat childhood obesity.” But the SFA said a voluntary approach with nutrition guidelines developed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG), which are already being implemented, will be a more effective way to achieve the same goals
“Clearly, the science base for this report needs to be evaluated carefully because it is likely to be used as the basis for legislation,” cautions Lisa Katic, SFA nutritionist and health policy advisor, pointing out that the industry already is working to comply with the “gold standard” voluntary guidelines established by the alliance. “Very real changes are being made. These companies should be commended, not told, ‘well, now we need you to do something more.’”
SFA president and CEO Jim McCarthy says that since the alliance’s guidelines were launched last year, SFA member companies have released new nutritious snack products that are formulated to meet or exceed those standards.
“Our members will continue to develop new ways to provide better-for-you snack options and work with the alliance to implement their guidelines in schools,” McCarthy says.
Over the course of the year, Sen. Harkin and his allies in Congress were able to negotiate an agreement with major beverage companies to restrict soft drink sales in schools. However, an amendment he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) developed late during the Farm Bill debate to extend restrictions to snacks and other products was ruled non-germane and was not included in that legislation.
Member Involvement Crucial
While the SFA’s lobbying team, led by McCarthy and Torrey, spent countless hours on Capitol Hill working with members of Congress and key staffers, as well as their counterparts from other industry groups, they stress the importance of involvement by SFA members themselves.
“These issues are going to continue to manifest themselves in the election year of 2008,” Torrey says. “SFA is part of a broad coalition and we will engage on behalf of our members. But that is only part of the equation. We need our member’s personal involvement as well.
“We are going to be playing defense in 2008, and we need our folks to be actively engaged with members of Congress,” he continues. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of our members developing relationships with members of Congress or candidates of their choice and attending our Day in D.C. this year.
“As the person who is here day in and day out, when I walk into a Congressman’s or Senator’s office, and they know the relationship that I have with somebody in their district and in their state, that is critical,” Torrey explains. “The threats are getting more and more serious, and they have a direct impact on their bottom line. If legislation had passed limiting choices in the Food Stamp program, that would have created a domino effect, and they would start looking at foods in other areas.
“I guarantee you,” he says, “if we hadn’t been in their working, some of this would have happened.”