A former snack food and corn syrup industries lobbyist appointed by the Trump Administration to set food policy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in close contact with her former employers on major and wide-ranging nutrition policies, emails obtained by the Project On Government Oversight through the Freedom of Information Act show.
Correspondence between three recent appointees and representatives from industry organizations, including the Corn Refiners Association and the Snack Food Association (now called SNAC International), show lobbyists proposing names of potential members for a federal advisory committee on sodium, producing talking points for Secretary of Agriculture George “Sonny” Perdue, and seeking intelligence on agency policy decisions.
Independent analysts say the emails POGO obtained demonstrate the close ties former industry lobbyists who become government officials maintain with the companies, industry associations, and lobbying firms they formerly worked for and with. This can create ethics concerns when those government officials are now in a position to affect the fortunes of their former employers and clients, potentially making decisions at odds with what’s best for the public at large.
“Secretary Perdue seems to have installed an extra-large revolving door to usher in lobbyists and executives from giant corporations,” said Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program and author of a report tracking the myriad conflicts of interest at the Department of Agriculture under Secretary Perdue.
In July 2017, Perdue named Maggie Lyons, a former lobbyist for the National Grocers Association, as chief of staff to the acting deputy undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; and Kailee Tkacz, most recently food policy director at the Corn Refiners Association and previously a lobbyist for the Snack Food Association and National Grocers Association, as a policy advisor. (Perdue also tapped Brandon Lipps, a former counsel at the House Agricultural Committee under Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), as acting deputy undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.)
The Food and Nutrition Service is responsible for USDA’s 15 food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Supplemental Program for Women and Children (WIC), and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Service has sweeping influence over how tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year—roughly 70 percent of the Department’s budget—on nutrition programs that are vital for many families. It also plays a central role in setting national nutrition policy, which can affect food labeling; inform food programs, for instance determining which products can be purchased through SNAP; and influence school nutrition standards, which were updated for the first time in 15 years in 2012.
The 2012 “standards have led to meals with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with far less sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars. Sugary drinks, unhealthy snack foods, and trans fats have been removed as well,” stated Dr. Richard Besser, head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a January comment. The changes from the standards “are consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Besser’s comment was filed with the Department to oppose an interim rollback to the school nutrition standards that was announced in November. Among other changes, the rollback gave industry “more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals.”
The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services produce dietary guidelines, which are supposed to be based on scientific evidence, every five years. The current guidelines were issued in 2015, and Agriculture and Health and Human Services have already launched the long and contentious process to formulate the 2020 guidelines.
POGO filed a Freedom of Information Act request with USDA requesting email correspondence between Tkacz, Lyons and Lipps and industry and their related trade associations. We received nearly 200 pages of emails demonstrating the close, collegial relationship the advisers maintained with their former employers at the Corn Refiners Association, SNAC International, National Grocers Association and lobbyists such as Michael Torrey, a former senior USDA staffer who lobbies for SNAC International and the American Beverage Association.
While Washington may be built on such relationships, the correspondence reveals industry attempts to influence the scientific advice that undergirds government decisions about public health.
In September 2017, lobbyists from the Corn Refiners Association and the Sugar Association secured a meeting with Lyons and Lipps to discuss both the dietary guidelines and a potential Dietary Reference Intake for carbohydrates, such as fiber and sugar. A Dietary Reference Intake is a standard established by an expert committee convened by the National Academy of Medicine and sponsored by public agencies including USDA. The standards the committee establishes then inform other recommendations, such as nutrition labeling requirements and the dietary guidelines. The meeting demonstrates the degree to which these top USDA appointees were willing to meet with industry groups—one of which had recently employed their colleague, Tkacz.
The request came during a heated battle over sugar’s health effects. The 2015 dietary guidelines were the first to recommend that sugar comprise no more than 10 percent of daily calories, consistent with the World Health Organization’s guidance. Industry lobbyists such as the Sugar Association criticized the guidelines by claiming the science behind them was biased, a move advocates say is a standard tactic in industry’s effort to cast doubt on nutrition science. The recommendation fueled the inclusion of an “added sugars” requirement in the FDA’s 2016 update of nutrition labels, which Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has since delayed by two years.
Corn syrup is used as a substitute for sugar in soda and snack foods and is also restricted by the 2015 dietary guidelines. A debate has raged in the public health community for years over the relative health merits of high-fructose corn syrup versus sugar.
In 2014, The New York Times reported on a lawsuit where reams of corporate documents show that major agribusiness corporations used the Corn Refiners Association “to rebut these studies and to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to declare its syrup ‘natural’ and allow a more approachable product name, like ‘corn sugar.’” The Times wrote that the Association spent more than $30 million on a related public relations campaign between 2008 and 2014.
In 2016, Tkacz, as a representative for the corn syrup lobby, wrote that the “biggest loser” in the dietary guidelines issued in 2015 were “added sugars.” These are not naturally occurring sugars—for example in fruit—but what a government factsheet calls “sugars and syrups that food manufacturers add to products like sodas,” including corn syrup. She also wrote there was “No evidence to support a physiological or nutritional difference between added and naturally-occurring sugars.”
Tkacz also lobbied Congress and the USDA on “Agriculture Appropriations Legislation as it relates to sodium” while at the Snack Food Association.
The records POGO obtained show that, in February 2018, lobbyists from the Snack Food Association (now named SNAC International) and Food Directions—a food industry lobby firm that has represented the Snack Food Association—contacted Tkacz to recommend potential members for an existing Dietary Reference Intake committee on sodium. The committee’s work will update sodium standards that have been in place since 2005. The members recommended to Tkacz “would bring more balanced perspectives to the DRI committee,” according to Food Directions lobbyist Lindsay Yarabek Datlow, who also forwarded an opinion piece arguing the sodium levels recommended by the American Heart Association are too low. Two of the lobbyists’ recommendations—David McCarron and Suzanne Oparil—have worked as industry consultants, McCarron for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Oparil for the Salt Institute. Others authored studies that questioned sodium’s effect on health. A USDA spokesperson said that USDA did not recommend anyone from the list, and nobody from the list joined the committee.
“It is beyond inappropriate for the salt industry to use backchannels with the Administration to try to stack the deck on scientific consideration of the health impacts of sodium,” said Laura MacCleery, policy director for the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest. Reducing sodium in restaurant and processed foods has been a priority of the Center since its inception in 1971.
Like sugar and other sweeteners, sodium is a highly politicized food additive, prized by industry for its ability to make food taste good and feared by advocates for its effect on blood pressure and cardiac disease. The Obama Administration established voluntary standards for sodium in school lunches in 2010, which Perdue rolled back shortly after his April 2017 confirmation pending the DRI committee’s recommendations. Meanwhile, 12 Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee sent a letter to the National Academy of Medicine in December 2017 questioning whether some of the scientists on the committee were biased against sodium.
“It’s really important that the committees giving nutrition advice are balanced and neutral,” said Food and Water Watch policy director Patty Lovera. But, unlike those members of Congress, she expressed concern that industry associations through their former employees now in powerful government positions would try to install pro-corporate members on potentially influential advisory committees.
Food industry influence on the USDA secretary’s office flowed in both directions, emails show. For example, Tkacz contacted a former colleague at SNAC International in January 2018 to say she was trying to get Perdue to visit facilities for Snyder’s pretzels and Utz chips on an upcoming trip to Pennsylvania. The following month, Tkacz forwarded an email from the National Grocers Association’s executive vice president to Perdue’s speechwriter suggesting themes for an upcoming Perdue speech at an association event. Though USDA hasn’t made the speech public, news accounts indicate that many of the suggested themes—such as the need for deregulation—were used.
Both Tkacz and Lyons received ethics waivers in August 2017 from White House Counsel Donald McGahn allowing Tkacz to work on the Dietary Guidelines for America and Lyons to work on SNAP (formerly known as the food stamps program) and the Special Supplemental Program for Women and Children. McGahn wrote that granting the waivers was “in the public interest” because of Tkacz and Lyons’ expertise on the issues. The waivers lifted the requirements of a portion of the Trump White House ethics pledge, which states that previously registered lobbyists cannot discuss matters they lobbied on within two years of their appointment, or even work on the “specific issue area” the matter falls in.
The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote that Tkacz has “no training in science, public health, or nutrition.” Tkacz lobbied on the dietary guidelines process in 2016 for the Corn Refiners Association, and Lyons lobbied on SNAP and WIC in 2017 for the National Grocers Association. The grocers association has historically worked to keep the largest array of products eligible for purchase under SNAP as possible. Lyons also owned nearly $50,000 worth of stock in the Coca Cola Company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and the National Beverage Corporation, but sold it upon her government appointment, according to her financial disclosure.
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department said, “As with all Trump Administration appointees, the ethics rules Kailee Tkacz operates under, with regard to an appointee’s former employers, include a one-year look-back under the federal ethics rules, and a two-year look-back under the Administration’s more stringent ethics pledge. Her employment with SNAC falls outside that two-year window, or ‘cooling off period.’ There is no conflict of interest.”
The cases of Tkacz and Lyons are examples of how President Trump's ethics pledge for his appointees departs from his predecessor’s, which had a harder and brighter line against the appointment of lobbyists to positions throughout the executive branch. As POGO wrote last year, "Under Obama, an appointee who was a former registered lobbyist had to get a waiver to join the administration." Now, in the current Administration, there is no default bar on lobbyists serving as political appointees—they do not need a waiver to be appointed. As POGO noted, "absent a waiver, they still are barred from working on certain matters and issue areas they worked on as lobbyists."
The Associated Press reported in March 2018 that in the first year of the Trump Administration the White House granted "at least 24 ethics waivers to key administration officials at the White House and executive branch agencies." In comparison, the AP wrote, "Nearly 70 waivers were issued to executive branch officials during Obama's eight years, though those were generally more narrowly focused and offered a fuller legal explanation for why the waiver was granted."
These are not the first political appointees to raise ethics concerns at USDA. For instance, Rebeckah Adcock heads the team responsible for finding regulations to roll back at the agency, in accordance with a February 2017 executive order. Adcock most recently worked for CropLife America, a trade group of pesticide producers, and earlier for the American Farm Bureau Federation, a federal conglomeration of state farm bureaus that regularly opposes environmental and agricultural regulations. Adcock was criticized by members of Congress for not turning over names of members on her deregulatory team, and also came under scrutiny in the press for holding meetings with her former employers and other companies from the agricultural and pesticide industry.
The food and beverage industry was largely supportive of Perdue’s nomination. “CRA stands ready to work with Dr. Perdue on the many ways value added corn products can benefit American jobs and consumers,” said the Corn Refiners Association’s president and CEO John Bode in a March 30, 2017 statement. Bode previously served as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for Food and Consumer Services during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and has since lobbied for multinational corporations such as Kraft Foods and trade groups such as the National Meat Association, according to his LinkedIn profile. The National Grocers Association, the Sweetener Users Association (representing “American food and beverage manufacturers who use sugar”), and other trade groups also backed Perdue’s nomination and sent letters of support to the Senate.
“If the people generating [government] advice are working to advance the interest of a certain type of food or to downplay risks caused by some type of product, the public isn’t going to get the unbiased advice they need to navigate a very confusing marketplace,” said Food and Water Watch's Lovera.