Commentary

A Sweet Deal for the Sugar Industry

This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on February 6, 2005.

You can never get enough from consumers and taxpayers. That apparently is the sugar industry’s motto. Collect subsidies. Ban trade. Outlaw your competitors. Let the American people pay.

These aren’t good times for the sugar lobby. Sales were down 4.3 percent in 2004.

Sugar Association President Andy Briscoe acknowledges, “Sugar has an image problem.” Obviously, sugar doesn’t cause obesity. Consuming too much sugar-laden food and drink causes obesity.

Which is why sugar substitutes are a godsend for many Americans. With most diets drenched in calories, Equal, Sweet ‘N’ Low, and Splenda all offer a modest respite. Which is bad in the sugar lobby’s view.

So the Sugar Association has done the American thing – sued McNeil Nutritionals, Splenda’s maker. The sugar lobby charged McNeil with false advertising and unfair competition for saying that Splenda is “made from sugar” and using the line “What are little girls made of? Splenda and spice and everything nice.”

Actually, sucralose is sucrose, chemically modified. And it seems doubtful that this creative take-off of the old rhyme is why the sugar producers are losing sales. Few consumers could believe that they are getting sugar.

But the Sugar Association hasn’t stopped with a lawsuit. The lobby also has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate McNeil. And the Association hired the public relations firm Qorvis Communications to create a Web site touting the “truth about Splenda.”

Qorvis didn’t put it quite that way, of course. Instead it announced that “a group of concerned consumers, led by sugar cane and sugar beet farmers across America,” launched the Web site.

Ah, yes. Sugar cane and sugar beet farmers, who have spent years mulcting the taxpayers for fun and profit.

The current sugar program was established in 1981. When he traded his support for another bill in return for the Reagan administration’s backing for the sugar payoff, Rep. John Breaux, D-La., famously opined that his vote was “rented,” not bought.

The loan guarantee program has been costing around $200 million a year. Alas, outlays can go higher: in 2000, the Agriculture Department spent $465 million to pay farmers to destroy their crops.

When Congress reauthorized the program in the 2002 Farm Bill, it cut penalties on farmers who forfeited their sugar, boosting industry winnings by another half billion dollars. In addition, Washington spends an extra $90 million a year to pay for higher-priced sugar-laden products as part of its feeding programs.

Washington also maintains import quotas, which have been estimated to cost U.S. consumers about $2 billion annually. These restrictions have ravaged the economies of poor Latin American nations.

A fifth of farmers collect 60 percent of the benefits. And driving up prices – to as much as five times the world level – has pushed manufacturers to substitutes, such as high-fructose corn syrup, decimating the domestic refining industry (12 of 22 refineries closed over the last two decades).

But the industry always wants more. The Bush administration has been pushing to increase U.S. abroad with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The Sugar Association naturally came out against the accord.

Of course, the industry-sponsored “truth” Web site does not mention what really is at stake: propping up industry profits. Although Qorvis claims that it is making no health claims, the Web site declares that “no one can say with certainty that the substance is safe to eat.”

Splenda is used by thousands of products and millions of people, and no problems have appeared. Yet can we be certain?

If the safety standard for products was “certainty,” we would have little to eat or drink. It is impossible to prove a negative.

But scores of studies have attested to Splenda’s safety. The sweetener also has been approved by the Canadian Health Protection Branch and Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as the Food and Drug Administration.

With little evidence on its side, the sugar lobby simply pounds the table. “It’s up to parents to decide whether their children should drink chlorine compounds,” says Qorvis’ Rich Masters.

A cute smear, that one. If Splenda isn’t sugar, as the sugar producers claim, then it certainly isn’t chlorine. Let’s face it, there isn’t much one might want to eat – hot dogs, say – after reading a label of full of bizarre-sounding ingredients. Yet the products are perfectly safe.

“Take ACTION” demands the sugar lobby. The American people should end the sweet deal that the sugar producers enjoy at consumer and taxpayer expense. Americans certainly should ensure that the sugar industry doesn’t restrict their choices any further.

Should people use sugar or an artificial sweetener? There’s no right answer. But it should be up to consumers, not the sugar lobby.

Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and James Madison Scholar with the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.