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The Latest and Loudest DC Lobby Force: Pizza

Words by Leon Kaye

Pizza is definitely more American than apple pie, judging by all the restaurants and take-out joints you pass by during your commute. From your favorite corner eatery to the behemoths like Domino’s and Little Ceasar’s, pizza is part of the United States’ food, landscape and culture. Every day at least 40 million Americans eat pizza; one in four boys and teenagers consume at least a slice daily. All that fat and carbs on average provide at least one quarter of that American’s caloric intake, and one-third of the recommended amount of sodium. But pizza also provides one-third of a daily supply of calcium and half a day’s intake of lycopene.

Therein you have the foundation of a food fight with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on one side, against what first sounds like a benign organization, the American Pizza Community (APC). But the latter has become a formidable lobbying group that is fighting school lunch and calorie disclosure regulations tooth and nail.

Like many trade associations and lobbying groups, the APC likes to paint a picture of its membership as a beacon for small businesses, owned by guys who wear a Chef Boyardee hat as they spin yet another pizza crust with their index fingers.

But the reality is that the APC is a coalition of companies including Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Ceasar’s, Pizza Hut and California Pizza Kitchen amongst its membership, along with suppliers including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the National Pork Producers Council and Tyson. And together these companies are thrusting a collective middle finger at what they say are onerous regulations pushed by clueless bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

And to be fair, some of the APC’s arguments have a point. As the outcries against the increasing obesity rate in America led to more calls for calorie counts on menus, fast food companies and restaurant chains from McDonald’s to Darden (the Olive Garden outfit) scrambled to do so. Even the National Restaurant Association, long feared in D.C., collaborated on a menu labeling law. But when it comes to pizza, it’s complicated. First, there is not much of a point of disclosing calorie counts on a menu next to the cash register when most pizza cravers call for delivery or use their smartphone during yet another House of Cards mini-marathon—all on the same phone, of course. Just about every pizza outlet delivers—McDonald’s and Chipotle don’t. Should calorie counts be discussed during that phone call, or should they be on the smartphone app?

Therefore, as a recent Bloomberg article points out, the pizza industry felt that the aforementioned NRA threw it under the bus. As calorie disclosure rules got intertwined into the Affordable Care Act, the FDA proposed regulations mandating calorie counts for an entire pizza pie—which would freak out consumers since anyone over the age of 17 and not a defensive lineman has zero business eating an entire pizza. Why not disclose calories per slice? And what if you have extra pepperoni, anchovies, barbecued chicken, etc., etc., and a few hundred more etcetera’s? How long would that calorie count list be?

But the pizza lobby’s fight against regulators is not about protecting the corner pizzeria in your neighborhood from federal regulators, nor is it over discerning how many calories are really in a ham-pineapple-and-fried-egg pizza. This fight is about preserving its business, much of it thanks to these companies’ clutches on the federal, state and local treasuries. Before Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Campaign,” the federal government was long a friend of the pizza industry, thanks in part to agribusiness interests pushing the USDA to sell more cheese. A division of the agency worked with pizza companies like Domino’s load more cheese on their pizza, and sales surged. But in addition to subsidized marketing campaigns, at least one pizza manufacturer has a huge stake in the school lunch business.

Schwan’s Food Service, based in Minnesota, claims it has a 70 percent market share within the pizza segment of the multi-billion school food service sector. One graphic in the New York Times shows that at one point, within the $US20 billion school lunch industry, almost half a billion was spent on pizza (depending on your stance on this kerfuffle, you will be amused or appalled to learn the Times did not bother estimating national spend on baby carrots). Regulations that could affect whether tomato paste is a vegetable or not, including whole grains in the crust or cramming in more vegetables on that reheated slice of pie cuts into these business’s profits: and any business used to having government as a customer, when threatened, will not go down quietly. All you have to do is play the kid and consumer choice cards: kids love pizza (they aren’t fools), and tempeh-and-miso wraps are not cheap enough to tuck into school menus. Plus kids will just toss those wraps anyway.

Given the political climate in Congress and most state legislatures, the pizza industry will be safe and continue to grow. It is easy to demonize a hamburger; maligning a slice of (fake) Italian goodness is a tougher battle. And since America is generally a regulation-adverse nation in general, those who advocate for children’s health will need to find other tactics to win hearts and minds. Because as American as apple pie may be, pizza has a much better funded public relations campaign behind it.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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