OUCH!: Congressional Candyland

You've heard of sweet-talking politicians. How about sweet-taking pols? That's the only name to give to the thirty Senators who earlier this year signed a letter to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman protesting a proposed change in the federal government's dietary guidelines concerning how much sugar people should eat.

On one side were a group of the country's top nutritionists, who studied the issue for three years. Concerned that sugar has no dietary value other than adding calories and alarmed at rising obesity rates in the population, the nutrition experts suggested changing the federal guideline on sugar, which used to state "Choose a diet moderate in sugar," to read: "Choose beverages and foods that limit your intake of sugars."

That's when the sugar lobby swung into action. Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Kent Conrad (D-NE), the #1 and #4 recipients of sugar-daddy campaign contributions from 1995-2000 (with $71,602 and $44,726, respectively), circulated a letter to Secretary Glickman calling on him to essentially overrule the nutritionists' recommendation, citing rules that require any such change to be backed by "sound science" -- a classic industry strategem for blocking or delaying regulatory actions. According to a report in Legal Times, the initial draft of the letter was written by sugar industry lobbyists.

Ultimately, thirty Senators -- 22 Republicans and 8 Democrats, including several on the committee that oversees the Department of Agriculture's budget -- signed the letter. This group received 40 percent more in contributions from the sugar industry than the average Senator. Overall, sugar growers have given more than $4.4 million to federal candidates and party committees since 1997, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (Fifty-two percent of the goodies have gone to Democrats; 48 percent to Republicans.)

The result? When the USDA announced its revision of the federal food guidelines on May 27th, the nutritionists' language had been quietly dropped. Now they tell Americans to "choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugar." And the meaning of this change isn't as fluffy as cotton candy. Among other things, the dietary guidelines regulate what the federal government, the nation's largest food buyer, can purchase for the more than 50 million people it feeds daily in the army, prisons and schools.

This isn't the first time that a well-heeled food lobby has managed to tilt the federal food guidelines toward its product, by the way. When the Agriculture Department initially emphasized fresh foods in a draft of its "food guide pyramid" for young children, the National Food Processors Association pounced. Their lobbyists convinced the USDA to include their products in the final pyramid. Look closely and you'll spot canned tuna in the "meat group," canned peas in the "vegetable group," and canned peaches in the "fruit group." Yum.

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