Sugar Industry-Backed Senators Urge No Action on High Sugar Prices

In a letter to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, the senators warn against changing the programs that jack up prices for American sugar.

Sugar Industry-Backed Senators Urge No Action on High Sugar Prices
A cashier processes a customer's order in a Kroger grocery store on July 15, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

A dozen U.S. senators, including the top recipients of donations from the sugar industry, recently wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to urge him not to make changes to the federal government’s system of support for sugar prices, even as the price of food is increasing at rates not seen since the 1970s.

“It is imperative that USDA not make changes that would create a glut in the U.S. market and collapse prices below grower costs of production,” the letter, led by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), states.

Hoeven sent the letter just days after his legislative correspondent attended a sugar industry lobbying retreat in Fargo, North Dakota called “Sugar 101: The Industry A-Z.” 

The letter is likely to be a response to a letter that Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) sent to Vilsack late last month. Shaheen’s letter urges Vilsack to take action “to improve domestic supplies of sugar and help bring down the cost of food and beverage products for American consumers.” Specifically, Shaheen is calling on Vilsack to increase transparency around its policies for adjusting sugar quotas and to establish new policies around what constitutes “reasonable prices,” among other things.

For decades, the U.S. government has guaranteed a minimum price for U.S. sugar producers through a combination of nonrecourse price support loans that allow farmers to repay the government in sugar, import quotas, and direct purchases of crops, which it sells to ethanol manufacturers. The program is designed so there is no net cost to government, but the higher sugar prices it supports lead to more expensive processed foods, so consumers end up footing the bill. According to economist and American Enterprise Institute contributor Michael Wohlgenant, the policies cost consumers about $2.4 billion per year. 

The U.S. sugar program is dealt with in the farm bill, and Vilsack’s authority to make major changes to sugar subsidy policies without an act from Congress is limited, which Shaheen acknowledged in her letter. 

Among the co-signers of Hoeven’s letter are many of the top recipients of sugar industry contributions in the Senate. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose state is home to several sugar cane companies, signed Hoeven’s letter and is the top Senate recipient of sugar cane and sugar beet industry money of all time, according to data from OpenSecrets. Rubio has collected $244,606 in campaign contributions from the sugar industry over his career. The second largest ever recipient of sugar money in the Senate, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), also signed Hoeven’s letter. Stabenow has received $233,289 from the sugar industry over her career. She is the chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. 

On average, the 12 senators signing Hoeven’s letter have received $108,880 from the sugar cane and sugar beet industry over the course of their careers, more than double the $51,092 that the average member of the Senate has received, according to Sludge’s analysis of OpenSecrets data.

 From August 2021 through August 2022, the price of cereals and bakery products, a category of foods that is particularly high in sugar, has increased by 16.4%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. No other food category tracked by the Consumer Price Index saw as large of an increase over that period.

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