by Emily Atkin | May 24, 2018
It has long been demonized by conservatives—and even some vegans themselves—but does it really exist?
That’s how Congressman Steve King might see it, anyway. Because when the farm bill lost in a 213-198 vote, so did a piece of legislation he attached to it: the Protect Interstate Commerce Act (PICA), which would prevent states from imposing their agricultural laws on out-of-state agricultural products. King said he created the bill to protect Iowa’s meat, egg, and dairy producers from being “held hostage to the demands of California’s Vegan Lobby.” With the farm bill shelved—for now, anyway—Iowa farmers who sell products in California must continue to abide by the state’s strict environmental, public health, and animal rights regulations.
Since King first introduced PICA in 2013, he’s deemed such regulations a vegan conspiracy. Animal rights laws—such as California’s requirement that chickens have enough space in their cages to turn around—are not really about animal rights, he says. They are attempts to impose wacko plant-based diets on America’s meat-lovers.
“In the end, they really want to take meat off our plate,” he said in 2013, referring to animal rights groups. And when the country’s largest such group, the Humane Society, gave him a “zero” rating on its annual scorecard this year, King celebrated by sharing a recipe for pheasant soup. “We carnivores won’t be intimidated by anyone in the ‘Vegan Lobby’ who can be chased out of the room with a raw pork chop,” he said.
The idea that there’s a powerful vegan lobby has caught on with vegans and non-vegans alike. In a Telegraph essay last year, titled “I would sign up to veganism if it weren’t for all the damned vegans,” a photo caption uses the term to refer to PETA protestors, thus equating the vegan lobby with animal rights groups as King does. But others use the term even more loosely. A writer for The Guardian seems to believe that the vegan lobby is people who love soy. And in a recent essay, vegan writer Janey Stevenson wrote, “I’ve deliberately disconnected myself from the vegan lobby because frankly, it’s embarrassing,” without explaining what, exactly, she’d disconnected herself from. A PETA membership? A vegan Meetup?
Perhaps all this confusion stems from the fact that the vegan lobby doesn’t really exist.
“There is no organized vegan lobby,” said Alan Nemeth, the executive director of the Vegan Trade Council, the first and only trade organization for vegan companies in Washington, D.C. “What makes a lobby powerful is money. And there’s no money behind this operation.”
A lobby, by definition, is a group of people (lobbyists) who are paid to persuade lawmakers to enact policy on behalf of an interest group. These lobbyists are often paid by trade associations which, in the food industry, include the International Dairy Foods Association, the North American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Coalition, and the National Chicken Council. Thus, there are currently 52 people registered to lobby on behalf of the dairy industry; 24 people on behalf of the poultry and egg industry; 34 people for meat products and processing; and 54 people for livestock.
The Vegan Trade Council, by contrast, has no lobbyists.
“Frankly, we don’t have the money,” Nemeth said. A law professor at American University, he runs the group part-time along with one other person (an anesthesiologist). His work on behalf of its 88 member companies consists of working directly with small food stores to get vegan products on the shelves, and submitting comments when there’s a relevant regulation to comment on, like President Trump’s proposed repeal of animal welfare labeling rules or relaxing of school lunch nutrition requirements.
If the Vegan Trade Council had a lobbyist, Nemeth said, the group would add a few more policy goals to its plate. One would be phasing out subsidies for the meat and dairy industries. “The government is tipping the market in favor of animal-based diets,” he said. The Vegan Trade Council would also advocate for policies requiring public institutions, like prisons, to offer vegan meals. “So everything is not chicken and beef and fish,” he said. They would also lobby against the dairy industry’s attempts to prohibit soy milk from being labeled as “milk.”
Animal rights organizations certainly sympathize with some of these goals. Veganism is central to PETA’s agenda, for instance. But such groups cannot fairly be called the vegan lobby because they’re lobbying for the protection of animals, not in the interest of vegan businesses. Marty Irby, a senior advisor at the Humane Society, recognizes that distinction. “I wouldn’t consider us a vegan lobby,” he said, noting that he eats meat three to four times a week. “I just believe animals should be able to be kept in spaces where they have room to move around and exhibit their natural behaviors.”
The sole vegetarian trade group in Washington rejects that it’s part of the vegan lobby because, while some members are vegan businesses, it also represents companies that sell meat, dairy, and egg distributors. “Campbell’s Soup is one of our members,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. And the group has only one lobbyist. “That’s all we can afford at the moment,” Simon said.
Even PETA, for all its fame (or infamy), rarely spends more than $100,000 a year on lobbying. So, given that vegan interests have so little influence on Capitol Hill, why has Congressman King been blaming the “vegan lobby” for egg regulations for the last five years? His office didn’t return a request for comment, but Nemeth has an idea. “It’s like calling someone a liberal,” he said. “The ‘vegan lobby’ is a trigger word to get people excited and riled up.” (Whereas most Americans think farm animals should be treated nicely before they’re killed, they seem to have a lower opinion of vegans.)
While the vegan lobby doesn’t really exist, that may change as the market for packaged vegan food in the U.S. grows. From 2016 to 2017, plant-based food accounted for $3.1 billion in sales, an 8.1 percent increase from the previous year. The fastest-growing sector was plant-based dairy alternatives, which grew at a 20 percent rate. And the market is projected to keep growing, at a rate of 8.14 percent from 2017 to 2021.
Nemeth is pessimistic that the vegan industry will ever influence U.S. policy in a meaningful way. The meat and dairy industries are just too powerful, he said. And as vegan companies grow, they tend to get bought out by larger, non-vegan food companies. “At that point, where do these conglomerates come down on pro-vegan legislation?” he said. “They’re not going to want to lobby against one of their own divisions.” But he thinks consumer demand may eventually influence policy in a way his organization never can.
In other words, Congressman King, the vegan lobby isn’t just in California. It’s everywhere.