Few Americans are aware of the extent to which the US government influences not just the price of their food - thanks to the massive subsidies the US Department of Agriculture disburses to America's farmers - but also the contents of menus at restaurants and fast food chains.
In a report published this week, Bloomberg explains how the USDA's marketing arm helps farmer trade groups pressure fast food chains to add certain items to their menus. From mushrooms to blueberries, mandatory fees levied by the USDA help finance a cohort of industry lobbying groups that work closely with restaurants to push certain ingredients. These campaigns often have a powerful impact on farmers' bottom lines: In March, Sonic - a fast casual burger chain - introduced two new burgers to its menu that both featured white button mushrooms: Instead of being 100% ground beef, these two burgers feature a blend of beef an processed mushrooms. The mixture dramatically lowers the calorie count of the burgers, satisfying customers' demands for healthier alternatives, per Bloomberg.
What many don't know, however, is that the introduction of these items was the result of a monthslong lobbying effort by the USDA funded Mushroom Council, a trade group that represents mushroom growers.
The committee's various lobbying efforts are already bearing fruit (pardon the pun): In the year ended Jan. 28, US sales of mushrooms grew by 4.9% to $1.24 billion compared with a years earlier. And much of this growth occurred before the 3,500 Sonic locations added the new menu items.
But despite the fact that farmers get back $9 in sales for every dollar spent on marketing, according to a research study conducted by professors of agricultural economics at Texas A&M, some farmers have decided to sue the USDA to try and scrap these mandatory payments to the USDA.
Their argument? The marketing efforts benefit foreign and domestic farmers equally, and the marketing often doesn't do enough to make clear that foods produced in the US are typically of a superior quality - at least, that's what the farmers are arguing.
In 2016, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, a nonprofit that advocates for independent U.S. ranchers, filed a complaint arguing the required fees violate the First Amendment by forcing them to subsidize speech they don’t agree with. The group supports Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee’s legislation prohibiting mandatory checkoff fees.
"We’re forced to pay and advertise foreign beef in the U.S.," said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of the Montana-based legal fund. "We have a superior product, and it’s coveted the world over."
Others are happy to pay the fees. Why? Because who could forget marketing campaigns like "Got Milk?" and the "Incredible Edible Egg". These campaigns had a powerful act on the American consciousness, and also helped spur tremendous boosts in sales.
In other words, farmers will readily pay the fee - if it can be demonstrated that they benefit from the campaigns, which often take years to successfully execute.
A victory by a trade group representing blueberry farmers is another example of how the push to partner with US restaurant chains is proving to be a successful strategy.
Recently, blueberries landed on the menu at steakhouse chain Sizzler USA Inc. in the form of a blueberry lemonade -- considered a big win for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, which worked on bringing the refreshment to the chain’s menu. Sizzler had 123 outlets as of last year, according to Technomic.
Because the fruit isn’t in season during the winter, Mission Viejo, California-based Sizzler is getting them from Peru. In May, the company will add more blueberries, as part of a spinach salad with almonds and feta cheese.
"Because the growers all pay into this fund, they want to know what the council is doing for them," said Andrew Hunter, a chef who works with the mushroom, egg and blueberry marketing programs. "This is a tangible way for boards to say, ‘This is what we’re doing for you.’ Sizzler’s blueberry lemonade. That’s tangible."
In 2015, more than 8,000 chain restaurant locations added blueberries to their menus - including Dairy Queen, Wendy’s and Red Lobster. Another group funded by the USDA via these mandatory marketing fees claimed responsibility for this, citing a multiyear effort to court fast-food companies.
And other campaigns are underway.
The American Egg Board, working with ad agency BBDO Worldwide Inc., is relaunching its "Incredible Edible Egg" ad campaign from decades ago with a slightly modified tagline: "How do you like your eggs?" But the name has been shortened. It’s now "The Incredible Egg."
So next time you see a new food trending - think how millennials love avocado toast - don't assume it happened organically. Somewhere along the line, a carefully crafted marketing campaign devised by one of these government-backed groups forced its messaging into your subconscious - often without you even knowing it.