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Food industry and government illustration
Food industry and government illustration
Tyson Whiting

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Restaurants, Lobbying, and the Politics of Persuasion

When it comes to policy-making, major chains have more influence than you think

Throughout the 2016 election, Eater's column Politics Plated will investigate the surprisingly interconnected relationship between politics and the food industry. In this installment, a look at food companies' drive to influence legislation and policy makers.

The food and beverage industry cares as much about politics as voters. The industry spent more than $33 million on lobbying in 2015, according to political research group OpenSecrets. A third of that came from restaurants and bars, which want to influence laws and protect their bottom lines. But many of the issues top food companies are lobbying are ones intended to protect everyday consumers and workers — issues like the minimum wage, health care reform, and marketing regulations.

The most popular lobbying issues for restaurants are taxes, food industry regulations, and health.

Typically, large companies hire in-house and private lobbyists to get lawmakers to pass policies that benefit the companies' industries and reject the policies that don’t. According to Eater's analysis, the most popular lobbying issues for restaurants are in the areas of taxes, food industry regulations, and health. And when restaurants aren’t lobbying for those things themselves, their trade associations are doing it: The National Restaurant Association, an industry advocacy group, spent more than $4.2 million last year lobbying on the restaurant industry’s behalf.

Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Lobbying has been successful in some cases. But sometimes a win for the industry is a loss for workers and consumers. Take the employer mandate in President Barack Obama's health care act: The mandate requires business owners to offer health insurance to all full-time employees who work at least 30 hours per week. But restaurant chains, including Wendy’s and Yum! Brands (parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC), have lobbied to re-define full-time employment as working 40 hours per week. The conservative-led House of Representatives approved the proposal in January 2015.

In another example, the Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Food Marketed to Children was tasked by the U.S. government to recommend guidelines for advertisers who market unhealthy products to children. The goal was to reduce childhood obesity, but many food companies advocated for less restrictive rules. Companies like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts lobbied over the guidelines, pressuring Congress to back off the issue.

To explore this issue more, Eater looked at 14 top restaurant organizations (the same group whose contributions to political parties we examined in the first Politics Plated installment) to see which issues and bills food chains have lobbied from 2011 to 2015. All but four companies on the list (Chipotle, Panera Bread, Dairy Queen, and Chick-fil-A) have lobbying history in the past five years. Use the tool below to browse through some of the descriptions and bills restaurant chains reported lobbying during that time.

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