Anyone who was in grade school in the ‘90s remembers seeing the USDA’s food pyramid appear on the walls of health class, science rooms, and cafeterias. What the pyramid was supposed to represent was a healthy, balanced diet per the United States Department of Agriculture’s carefully planned and executed guidelines.
The food pyramid introduced by the USDA in 1992 wasn’t a revolutionary idea — Sweden had introduced a similar food pyramid in 1974 (which placed meats at the top, narrow end of the pyramid, meaning don't eat much, and left sweets off entirely).
We don't know about Sweden's, but our own pyramid’s contents reflected our cultural food preferences, shaped in collusion with big food companies and their lobbyists to produce something that was mutually beneficial for them all — but not always for consumers. The successor to the old USDA food pyramid, after 19 years, is the MyPlate guide, introduced in mid-2011. It's a multi-colored plate with sections for grains (about 30 percent), vegetables (about 10 percent), protein (about 20 percent), and fruits (about 10 percent). Next to the plate, on the upper right, is a glass representing dairy. In 2012, the Harvard School of Public Health released its own version of the diagram, the Healthy Eating Plate, which refuted the idea that dairy was a necessary part of a balanced diet. Why was dairy still on the USDA's list? Well according to Daily Meal Council member Marion Nestle, the Paullette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, it’s as simple as “government collusion.” Nestle explains, “Dairy farmers are in every state, and every state has two senators.”
As it happens, dairy industry lobbyists are not among the most influential, though they obviously had enough power to shape the MyPlate guide. Representatives of other aspects of the massive food and drink industry influence what we eat and drink in other ways, perhaps ultimately more damaging.
Lobbyists themselves are not necessarily the problem. They are protecting the company they represent, and, as Nestle points out, “All food companies employ lobbyists or belong to trade associations that employ lobbyists. Some of the biggest [employers of lobbyists] are the National Restaurant Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto, for example.”
But how do these lobbyists work? Nestle explains, “They follow the tobacco industry playbook: confuse the science, buy silence through contributions, distract attention [away from brand-negative language] to [terms like] physical activity and hydration.”
This year, food lobbyists have been agonizing over various food labeling measures. A large number of the reports filed by lobbies this year have dealt with proposed food labeling laws, including those covering GMOs, country-of-origin, health-issues, and nutrition, which affect everything from distributors to producers to grocery stores and restaurant chains.
Our list of the top 10 most powerful food lobbies was compiled based upon the number of their special filings either for or against food industry legislation presented in Congress. If there was a tie, we then sorted by how many separate food issues they were involved in lobbying, and finally, by the amount of money spent by the lobbies during 2015.
Angela Carlos is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Find her on Twitter and tweet @angelaccarlos.