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Press Release July 27, 2021

New Study: Food industry lacks transparency in political spending

Findings revealed how the top 10 food and agriculture corporations' political spending influences nutrition and broader public policy.

CONTACT: Shayna Samuels, [email protected], 718-541-4785

Largest Food & Agriculture Corporations Lack Transparency When It Comes to Political Giving, New Study Finds

Pressure Mounting for Corporations to Open Their Books

(Washington, DC) New research was released today by the nonprofit organization Feed the Truth evaluating just how well 10 of the largest food and agriculture corporations disclose their political spending. Findings revealed that, despite the massive influence these corporations have on our health, economy, and the environment, there is very little publicly-available information about how they manipulate the political system to their advantage.

The Food and Agriculture Corporate Transparency (FACT) Index ranked the following corporations on a scale of zero to 100: ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola Company, JBS, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo, Inc., Tyson Foods and Unilever. 

“It’s a moment of reckoning for corporations and the unchecked power they have over our food and democratic systems,” said Lucy Martinez Sullivan, Executive Director of Feed the Truth. “We need nothing short of a transparency revolution to bring secret political spending out of the shadows and into the sunlight. It’s imperative the public, let alone investors, know how Big Food uses lobbying, campaign donations, corporate-funded science, and front groups to call the shots on everything from what food is produced to what our children eat at school.” 

Pressure is building for Big Food to open their books. Many corporations, including Pepsi, Tyson Foods, Coca-Cola, Cargill, ADM, and JBS temporarily suspended and/or are reviewing their political spending in the wake of the white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol, for example.  There is also growing shareholder support for greater transparency, and mounting critiques of the corporate capture of global food policy through the upcoming 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit

On July 27th, Feed the Truth is also leading a session as part of the UN Food System’s Pre-Summit entitled: “Food systems in the sunlight: Building a movement for corporate political transparency in food”

The Index specifically looked at four categories of giving: 

Electioneering, including political campaign contributions, and how much spending goes to trade associations lobbying on behalf of brands. For example, many leading food corporations can say publicly that they care about racial justice and voting rights, while their proxies, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobby against a living wage and the For the People Act.

Lobbying, including any activity which directly or indirectly influences the decisions of government officials, legislators, or regulatory agencies. For instance, Cargill, JBS, and the larger agribusiness sector spent at least $2.5 billion on U.S. federal lobbying alone since 2000, dedicating a substantial portion of this to blocking climate policy

Science refers to spending on research or institutions which often produce studies that pave the way toward a favorable regulatory environment for corporations’ products. For instance, Cargill, Unilever, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola have all funded the global industry lobby group International Life Sciences Institute to produce research to shape global food policy to favor their profits over public health. 

Charity includes donations to organizations, often with the intention of purchasing favor from potential critics. When Coca-Cola was deemed the world’s top plastic polluter, for example, they tried to protect their brand by making large gifts to the Nature Conservancy among other environmental causes. 

Key Findings: 

All of the corporations have an alarmingly low level of political giving disclosure. Even the highest ranking corporation, Coca-Cola, received only 39 on a 100 point scale for transparency, thanks in part to its robust reporting in the U.S. (one of 200 countries it operates in). St. Louis-based Bunge was the worst with a 2 out of 100.

The greatest strides can be taken by globalizing electioneering and lobbying disclosures. While Bunge and Tyson’s failed to make any public disclosures on campaign contributions, the remaining corporations at least made partial disclosures, with Coca-Cola leading, again, in each category thanks to its U.S. disclosures.

All scored particularly poorly in disclosing their spending on science. Pepsi, Unilever, ADM, JBS, Tyson, Bunge, and Mars all failed to disclose any of their scientific spending activities. Nestlé ranked the highest by meeting half of the FACT disclosure requirements (download dataset), with only three other corporations disclosing anything of their funding for corporate science.

Investors are taking note. Political spending that conflicts with corporations’ stated values or publicly-held positions endanger brand reputations, putting their money at risk. As one of the world’s largest investors, Vanguard, recently cautioned, “poor governance of corporate political activity, coupled with… a lack of transparency about the activity, can manifest into financial, legal, and reputational risks that can affect long-term value.”

The Index makes recommendations for what can be done to increase transparency, including: issuing rules through the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission and its equivalencies requiring political giving disclosures; adopting campaign finance laws at every level of government; and passing legislation that would require increased disclosure of campaign donors. Likewise, investors can introduce and vote for shareholder resolutions that call for corporations to conduct annual reporting of political disclosures.


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