Candy Companies Look For a Little Sugar in Washington

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In this April 21, 2009 photo, advertising for Hershey's hangs above the chocolate company's Times Square store in New York. Hershey, the nation's second-largest candymaker, reported a 20 percent surge, Thursday, in first quarter profit because of a longer Easter sales season and a recent price increase. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

We see you, sitting at your desk nibbling that “fun-size” candy bar, maybe leftover from the stash you gave away Halloween or even pilfered from your child’s hard-won haul.

America’s confectioners and chocolatiers thank you. Halloween means big business for the candy industry.

But beyond fueling costumed revelry every Oct. 31, candy makers and sugar producers have big operations aimed at fending off tricks and reaping more treats from Washington policymakers.

Nestlé is a Halloween giant, distributing popular candies like Butterfinger, Crunch and 100 Grand, apparently Minnesota’s treat of choice. This year, Nestlé employees have contributed $29,900 to candidates and committees, including $16,836 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Donald Trump has scooped up just $400 from the group and 2016 is the first year on record that Nestlé’s employees have favored Democrats over Republicans.

The international company’s Washington clout is more noticeable in the lobbying arena, however. In 2015, the last year for which complete data are available, Nestlé spent more than $3.1 million attempting to influence Washington, with $600,000 of that sum going to the Podesta Group, the K Street heavyweight founded by John Podesta, now Clinton’s campaign chair. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which became law, was of primary importance to Nestle; the measure, which became law, requires labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients but was criticized because it overrides tougher state laws. The company also filed a number of reports listing West African cocoa farming as a concern.

Maybe M&M’s, Snickers or Skittles are more your style, or maybe you’re chewing some Wrigley’s gum in celebration of the Cubs’ historic World Series appearance. Mars, Inc., which owns these brands, is also an influencer in Washington. The company spent more than $2.2 million on lobbying in 2015, also honing in on GMO labeling and, with it, issues of overhauling the nation’s sugar program (likely in connection with the so-called Sugar Reform Act) and country-of-origin labeling. While sizable, this total marks a decline from 2012’s all-time high, when Mars spent $2.6 million trying to influence policy.

Mars employees have also favored Clinton over any other candidate for federal office, giving the Democrat $14,884 of their $35,666 in total contributions this cycle. Overall, the company’s donations have tilted back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans in presidential and midterm election years, respectively, since 2008.

And no conversation about sweets in America would be complete without considering Hershey, the Pennsylvania-based chocolate giant. There’s a good chance you’ll find a Hershey’s product in your Halloween haul this year, given the company’s leading market share in the U.S. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Hershey falls short of its competitors in the cash it doles out to gain political clout.

The chocolatier’s employees have given just $13,376 this year. Like their counterparts at Nestlé, Hershey workers generally favored Republicans in the past, but this year have made 86 percent of their political contributions to Democratic candidates and committees. On the other hand, the company’s PAC, which had given out close to $59,000 by the end of September, has split its donations roughly evenly between the parties, favoring Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate. In terms of lobbying, the company spent $575,000 in 2015, less than half of its 2014 outlays. And, like its peers, Hershey filed more reports on GMO labeling than any other issue.

If there’s a candy company that bucks the trend, it’s Jelly Belly. OpenSecrets Blog has written previously about the company’s direct $10,000 donation to the conservative Citizens for Economic & National Security super PAC and contributions this year from Jelly Belly employees remain similarly tilted ideologically. These workers have given$66,175 during the 2016 cycle and 100 percent of their political contributions have gone to Republicans. In fact, no Jelly Belly employee has made an itemized contribution – one over $200 – to a Democratic candidate or party committee since 2008. Unlike other candy producers, Jelly Belly did not make any lobbying expenditures in 2015, or in 2016 to date.

While these companies are all linked by one simple ingredient – sugar – the politics within the industry are complicated. The fight over sugar policy has been out in the open in recent talks between the U.S. and Mexican government over export quotas.

Where the parties stand depends a lot on whether they’re buying or selling sugar. The U.S. government has gone to bat for its sugar farmers and distributors, who some argue enjoy subsidies that distort the market, over allegations that Mexican exporters flood the zone with inexpensive sugar. A cheaper input is great for candy companies, which benefit from the lower overall production price, but explains why, in the past, confectioners and sugar producers have ended up on opposite sides of the issue.

The National Confectioners Association, which represents Jelly Belly, Nestlé USA, Hershey and Mars, among others, spent $326,000 on lobbying in 2015. The trade group focused on the House and Senate versions of the Sugar Reform Act, which would cut subsidies to the U.S. sugar industry. In connection with that, it has concentrated efforts on sugar import issues like the ones raised above.

On the other side, the American Sugar Alliance spent almost $2.2 million on influence efforts that year, also honing in on the Sugar Reform Act. The group is well connected. Registered lobbyists for the trade association include former Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), who was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee from 1999-2002, Tom Sell, a former Agriculture Department official and Jeff Harrison, former counsel for the House Agriculture Committee.

Among its most powerful members? The Fanjul Corp., owned by Cuban emigre brothers Pepe and Alfonso Fanjul. Aligned with opposing ends of the political spectrum, Pepe has helped GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump raise money, while Alfie hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. This campaign cycle, the company has given $400,000 to the Philadelphia Host Committee, which raised money for the Democratic National Convention, as well as $350,000 to Republican White House hopeful Marco Rubio’s super PAC, helping boost overall donations by Fanjul Corp. and its employees to more than $2 million in the 2016 cycle. And the company — which owns Domino Sugar, among other brands — spent more than $1.1 million on federal lobbying in 2015.

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