Next time you hear a consumer advocate, environmentalist or public-interest group attacking some big business, demanding more regulations or pushing a government mandate, be sure to follow the money. There's a good chance that the do-gooder is being paid by a competing industry.
The latest example: "Citizens for Health" is leading a charge against high-fructose corn syrup as a scourge on public health -- and the sugar lobby is funding the whole thing.
Here's the bitter battle of the sweeteners:
The Sugar Association is a D.C. trade group representing sugar giants like Domino, Florida Crystals and Imperial Sugar. The Corn Refiners Association is its counterpart -- a fairly small lobbying and PR shop representing corn-processing giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland.
Washington subsidizes both industries to the gills. Corn gets crop subsidies, and ethanol made from corn is protected by lawmakers. Sugar gets protectionist import restrictions, cut-rate loans and more.
Last year, the Sugar Association sued the Corn Refiners Association, alleging false advertising by the corn industry, which had begun marketing high-fructose corn syrup as "corn sugar."
This week, the Corn Refiners Association countersued. Bad press for corn syrup has led some food and drink makers to replace corn syrup with cane sugar. One reason: widespread belief that cane sugar is healthier than corn sweetener.
The Food and Drug Administration says it doesn't believe corn syrup is any worse than regular sugar. Recent studies have mostly shown no measurable difference. But The Sugar Association has continued to push the notion that cane sugar is healthier and more natural. This push has altered consumer behavior and thus hurt corn refiners.
Citizens for Health, a "natural health" nonprofit, has joined in the anti-corn-syrup fight. CFH has lobbied the FDA to require clearer labeling and enforce restrictions on fructose content. The group has also launched an anti-corn-syrup PR campaign.
But, as always, follow the money. The Sugar Association has funded CFH's anti-corn-syrup campaign. Adam Fox, attorney for the Sugar Association, told me Friday that the Sugar Association is not directing CFH's campaign, but it is bankrolling it for "six figures" because of the two groups' "shared opposition" to corn syrup.
This echoes a similar campaign CFH launched against artificial sweeteners last decade. The Sugar Association also funded that campaign, as Andy Briscoe, CEO of the Sugar Association, testified in a court deposition in 2007.
Jim Turner, chairman of CFH, argues that it's not only OK, but "wise" for groups like his to partner financially with industries like sugar.
Turner told me CFH critiques things that "are not in the consumers' interest." He adds, "We are always more than happy to have allies from industry who have the same critique." His group thinks high-fructose corn syrup is bad, and that consumers have a right to know -- through clear labeling, for instance -- when they're drinking or eating corn syrup as opposed to cane sugar.
He said he regularly takes money from industries standing to profit from the causes he believes in. "We worked very close with suppliers" of dietary supplements, Turner told me, in CFH's efforts to promote FDA acceptance of dietary supplements.
"We worked hand in glove with the organic food industry" on another campaign, he said.
"If we've got someone in the corporate world that agrees with us about that issue, we think it's very wise to work with them."
If you honestly agree with an industry on a specific matter, the argument goes, why not pair their deep pockets with your moral authority?
This is standard practice for Washington-based do-gooder campaigns. A nonprofit lobbies for some regulation in the public interest while the companies profiting from the regulation bankroll the nonprofit.
Natural gas moguls T. Boone Pickens and Aubrey McClendon (CEO of Chesapeake Energy), for instance, funded liberal environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress in their recent campaign against coal.
"Women in Government," promoting access to a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease last decade, turned out to be funded by the vaccine's manufacturer and patent holder, Merck.
Economist Bruce Yandle created the perfect metaphor for this sort of arrangement. Imagine a Baptist preacher trying to elect a prohibitionist candidate. To fund the campaign, he could turn to the person who profits from prohibition: the bootlegger whose business depends on alcohol sales being illegal. They have the same enemy: legal liquor stores and bars.
So it is in Washington these days. The spotlight goes to the proverbial "Baptist" -- that is, the environmentalist, the women's advocate, the worker's advocate or the consumer advocate -- while the proverbial "bootlegger" funds the effort and reaps the profit.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.