For food-safety overhaul, lobbyists rushed to the table

By Amanda Becker
Monday, December 6, 2010

The overhaul of food safety laws recently passed by the Senate had the support of business interests, consumer groups and lawmakers from both parties, but the bipartisan legislation still generated plenty of work along the K Street corridor.

At least 221 organizations hired 77 lobbying shops to quibble over details in the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act since it was introduced by sponsor Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) at the beginning of last year. At times, industry organizations and corporate heavyweights with a stake in the bill -- such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association, the Natural Products Association, Abbott Laboratories and Anheuser-Busch -- retained multiple District firms to represent their interests. Many also deployed their own government relations staff to the Hill, a Capital Business analysis of Senate lobbying records shows.

The bill would give vast new authority to the FDA and is designed to reduce nationwide outbreaks of food-borne illness.

Though nearly all of the District's biggest shops registered to lobby on the overhaul -- often for longtime clients for which they handled dozens of legislative issues -- it was the smaller, more specialized firms that represented client interests with the greatest frequency, records show. Individuals with insider knowledge of the FDA, the Agriculture Department and related congressional committees were particularly in demand.

The Bockorny Group was tapped by more clients than any other shop in town for food safety work, registering to work on the bill for 11 entities. Many were the firm's traditional food-industry clients, such Agri Beef Co., the American Beverage Association and the National Pork Producers Council, which paid Bockorny $40,000 per quarter over the past two years for work on the food safety act and other issues. But Bockorny lobbyist Melissa A. Schulman said the firm worked on the bill for existing clients in other industries because it "cut across so many different issue areas." Those companies included CVS Caremark and Abbott Laboratories, which boosted its payments to the firm from $60,000 to $70,000 per quarter at the end of last year.

For Policy Directions Inc., which specializes on food industry issues, the comprehensive food law update was a perfect storm. Nearly every member of the shop once worked in the FDA, USDA or agriculture-related organizations, making it an obvious choice for the nine clients that hired it for food safety act work. The impending overhaul prompted Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms to hire a federal lobbying firm for the first time in four years. Since the family-run egg producer retained Policy Directions in January, it has paid the firm $60,000 for its work on the food safety act and other unspecified general agricultural issues.

The Alpine Group, Meyers & Associates and Tarplin, Downs & Young rounded out the list of firms that lobbied on the modernization act most frequently, representing eight clients each. Alpine founder Jim Massie and Meyers founder Larry D. Meyers both cite agriculture as a specialty; Tarplin focused on fringe issues affecting its clients in the biotechnology industry.

It is difficult to calculate exactly how much client companies paid for the food safety legislation work. Disclosure forms filed with the Senate do not break down payments by issue. The coffee chain giant Starbucks, for example, paid K&L Gates at least $370,000 over the last seven quarters for advice on menu labeling provisions in the food safety act, tax issues and other matters, though it is unknown how the firm divided its time.

The influence industry's window to mold how the FDA will protect the public from tainted peanut butter and toxic lettuce may not be closed. Lawmakers are now considering whether Senate language that imposes fees on companies for recalled food violates a constitutional requirement that any new taxes originate in the House. The procedural snafu could force the Senate to vote on a new version of the bill during a lame-duck session that is quickly drawing to a close -- potentially pushing the legislation to the next Congress, providing a new opportunity for K Streeters.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company