Special Report

Sugarland Excess

Hooked on federal subsidies, Big Sugar interests declare war on artificial sweeteners.

By 2.8.05

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WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration reportedly is pushing Congress to limit overall subsidies for farmers. It won't be easy. Agricultural interests like the sugar industry constantly push for more. In its view, you can never get enough from consumers and taxpayers. 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 last year and 1.8 percent in 2003. The industry was disappointed that the new federal dietary guidelines continue to recommend limiting sugar consumption.

Sugar Association president Andy Briscoe acknowledges that "sugar has an image problem." The Association is running ads touting the fact that there are only 15 calories in a teaspoon of sugar.

Opined Briscoe: "We stand firm in our assertion that every major scientific review, including the Institute of Medicine's macronutrient report, has concluded that there is not a direct link between added sugars intake and any lifestyle disease, including obesity."

That's true. 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 McNeil is taking sales away from the sugar producers. With Splenda's yellow packet routinely sitting next to Equal's blue and Sweet 'N Low's pink ones, few consumers could believe that they are getting sugar.

Nevertheless, the sugar industry wants damages and injunctive relief. And the Sugar Association hasn't stopped with a lawsuit.

The sugar lobby also has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate McNeil's supposedly misleading marketing campaign. Moreover, the Association hired the PR firm Qorvis Communications to create a website 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 website.

Ah, yes. Sugar cane and sugar beet farmers. They have done quite well over the 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, then 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 bought in excess of a million tons of sugar, which cost $1 million a month simply to store, and spent $465 million to pay farmers to destroy their sugar 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.

A fifth of farmers collect 60 percent of the benefits. One company alone has been estimated to receive $65 million. 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 still wants more. The Bush administration has been pushing to increase American commerce abroad with the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The Sugar Association naturally came out against the accord.

OF COURSE, THE INDUSTRY-SPONSORED "truth" website does not mention what really is at stake: propping up industry profits. Although Qorvis claims that it is making no health claims, the website declares that "no one can say with certainty that the substance is safe to eat" and points to safety complaints from nanny-state groups which attack most every food and drink that people enjoy.

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 -- hotdogs, say -- after reading a label of full of bizarre-sounding ingredients. Yet the products are perfectly safe.

"Take ACTION!" demands the sugar lobby. Yes, indeed, the American people should take action. They should back the administration effort to limit federal agriculture spending. They certainly should end the sweet deal that the sugar producers enjoy at consumer and taxpayer expense.

Moreover, Americans should ensure that the sugar industry doesn't restrict their choices any further. The Sugar Association's PR campaign against Splenda is the worst sort of special interest pleading.

Should you use sugar or an artificial sweetener? If you choose the latter, should it be Splenda? There's no right answer. But it should be up to you, not the sugar lobby.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).