NGA: 'Background' Provided to Ag Sec Common Practice
The National Grocers Association (NGA) said that background information it sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture official ahead of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s keynote speech at The NGA Show isn’t evidence of undue food industry influence on the USDA, in response to allegations in an article published by CNN.
According to the article, which cites emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, some of the information received by the official, identified as a former lobbyist for Arlington, Va.-based snack food trade association SNAC International, was incorporated into Secretary Perdue’s keynote address at the trade show, apparently demonstrating the USDA’s willingness to adopt the agendas of food industry groups. As noted by CNN, the USDA currently maintains a close relationship with the industry, having made moves to roll back regulations that food makers have lobbied against.
NGA countered, however, that its actions with regard to the USDA are nothing out of the ordinary.
“As the voice of the independent supermarket industry, NGA actively engages with policymakers in Washington, D.C., to promote and advocate on behalf of our membership,” noted Greg Ferrara, EVP, advocacy, public relations and member services at Arlington-based NGA, who was specifically mentioned in the CNN article. “We were honored that Secretary Perdue accepted our invitation to speak to our members and attendees at The NGA Show. Independent grocers are a significant player in the U.S. food distribution system and economy, and The NGA Show was a wonderful opportunity to address more than 3,200 stakeholders within this important audience.
“As with any presenter, whether they are a public official, industry expert or retailer who speaks at our meetings, we provide background on our organization, our members and relevant key issues so that the speaker better understands their audience and the major issues impacting our membership,” he continued. “This is very common practice, and we do this as a courtesy for the majority of our speakers who address our organization.”
The CNN article also alleges that the same USDA official involved in passing on the NGA talking points, Kailee Tkacz, attempted to set up visits at Snyder’s and Utz facilities in Pennsylvania for Secretary Perdue, who was scheduled to be in the area, although the department said that the visits ultimately didn’t occur.
Another email exchange included in the article purported to show USDA officials – Tkacz and others – and industry representatives discussing the names of industry-approved people to serve on a governmental committee probing the health effects of consuming sodium and potassium. According to the USDA, however, none of the candidates on the list was chosen to participate in the committee.
While it doesn’t appear that the USDA violated any ethics rules or broke the law through such interactions with the food industry, some observers in CNN’s article expressed the opinion that such practices were still problematic. Former Republican speechwriter Landon Parvin, for one, told the news outlet: “I would worry about the optics. The optics aren’t good.”