On Valentine's Day, little love between sugar, candy industries

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14, 2014 - It's the holiday of love - but there's no love lost between the sugar and candy industries, which are using Valentine's Day not just to promote their products, but to slam their opponents.

“This Friday is Valentine's Day, and chances are good that Big Candy lobbyists will use the holiday as an excuse to bash U.S. sugar policy on Capitol Hill,” the American Sugar Alliance (ASA) wrote in a release.

U.S. sugar prices are lower today than 30 years ago, yet the price of a candy bar has increased 300% over that time, notes ASA.

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The group, which represents the country's largest sugar producers, says the candy manufacturers are doing well - despite their complaints that the government's current sugar program is overly protectionist, keeps sugar prices artificially high and cuts into industry profits.

ASA points out that confectioners enjoyed a 12.3% profit margin through Dec. 31, up from an already healthy 10.7% in 2012. Those margins compare to 6.9% for other major food manufacturers.

In their own Valentine's Day release, issued late last month, the National Confectioners Association projected total U.S. confectionary sales for the 2014 holiday at over $1 billion, a 1.9 percent increase over 2013.

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The good news for sugar lobbyists: They seem to have won the latest battle, which was centered around the farm bill. The measure, passed just last week, did not contain major sugar program reform, disappointing the candy industry and a number of newspaper editorial boards.

Indeed, the sugar lobby had taken a beating in the last few months, as the Washington Post, the Tampa Bay Times the L.A. Times and other publications came out strongly against the current government policy.

“We are deeply disappointed that in crafting the farm bill conference report policymakers failed to take any action to fix the Depression-era U.S. sugar program that is in such dire need of reform,” the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which has deep ties to so-called Big Candy, wrote after the farm bill passed.

At least one reason for sugar's farm bill success: money. The industry's trade associations have made wise and widely dispersed campaign donations in recent years. The American Crystal Sugar Co., an agricultural cooperative specializing in the production of sugar and products, has contributed almost $1.17 million to campaigns in the 2014 election cycle thus far, spread out between politicians as diverse as Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

The National Confectioners Association (NCA), by contrast, has made $53,850 in donations for the election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. But that total does not reflect PAC donations from several individual candy companies, like Hershey Co., with another $24,500 in PAC donations during the 2012 cycle.

In late January, Hershey Co. said its fourth-quarter earnings rose 24%, helped by a strong holiday season in North America, lower input costs, and other factors.

Despite the policy fight's bitter rhetoric, both sugar and candy industries would be happy if the celebration continued beyond Feb. 14. The next day, Feb. 15, the National Confectioners Association points out, is National Gumdrop Day, and the 26th is National Pistachio Day.

“Try chocolate-covered pistachios,” the group said in a release.


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