While advocacy groups have long gathered evidence about to the ways the world’s largest food companies spend money influencing politics, back powerful trade groups, and fund research that makes it into mainstream discussions about food, just how much influence they really have in shaping food policy is notoriously hard to pinpoint, partially due to lax disclosure requirements on corporate spending.
According to Feed the Truth, a new organization aimed at addressing corporate control of the food system, this lack of transparency “means that corporations can sell us a family-, worker-, and environmentally friendly image even as they spend heavily to block policies that would improve public health, cut down on inequality and poverty, and help prevent the climate breakdown.”
Now, an index just released from the organization draws attention to just how much remains out of the public view—the spending left undisclosed by major food and agricultural corporations.
The Food and Agriculture Corporate Transparency (FACT) Index scores the world’s 10 largest food producers’ level of disclosure across four categories of spending: electioneering, lobbying, charitable donations, and the funding of scientific research. The corporations, selected based on highest reported 2020 revenue, were ranked from most to least transparent, as follows: the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Mars, ADM, Unilever, JBS, Cargill, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, and Bunge. The index specifically counts disclosure as publicly posting information on their websites, easily accessed by the public and investors.
Coca-Cola earns the relatively highest marks for transparency with just 39 out of 100 points, and it goes down from there, with Tyson Foods (the second-largest meat processor in the world) and Bunge (a massive agribusiness and ingredient supply company that many in the U.S. have never heard of) coming in at 3 and 2 points respectively.
Lucy Martinez Sullivan, the executive director of Feed the Truth, hopes that by sharing these low scores, her group can shed light on the gap between what these companies profess to do publicly and where their money is actually going.
“If these companies are going to be talking about what they see as priorities for private-sector engagement in food systems and really shaping the narrative and discourse around food, then they have a responsibility to be more transparent about how they are engaging in the policy process,” said Sullivan.
Civil Eats contacted Tyson Foods, Bunge, Coca-Cola, and Cargill for comment, but none had responded by press time.
Low Scores and a Lack of Accountability
Bunge and Tyson Foods, which are both publicly traded corporations, disclosed almost nothing about their political spending. In the lobbying and electioneering categories they both scored zero, indicating that they reveal nothing about money spent on these engagements.
“It’s really shocking that two publicly held corporations just do not put out any information for investors, shareholders, and the general public to be able to understand how they are using their power,” said Sullivan. Both companies earn upward of $40 billion dollars per year, granting them the potential for significant influence, noted Sullivan.
Even Coca-Cola, the highest scorer, does not have a good track record of accountable public spending. Earlier this year, an investigation by Popular Information revealed that the company funded 29 of the co-sponsors of Georgia’s voter suppression bills, likened to Jim Crow era laws, which were written to target Black voters. At the same time, the investigation found that, “Coca-Cola, through its Sprite brand, ran a series of ads prior to the 2020 election stressing the importance of voting in the Black community.”