There are 11,781 registered lobbyists in Washington, more than enough to represent even the most arcane special interests. The American Racing Pigeon Union has a lobbying firm to work on its behalf. So do the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute, the Owners of Ivory Miniatures, and the International Natural Sausage Casing Association. Within corporate America, food industry lobbyists represent particularly specific interests: Groups advocate for restaurants and frozen foods, franchise associations, and chains. Beef, dairy, corn, potatoes, and apples all have their champions.
But there is nothing quite like the pizza lobby, a rare coalition of competitors who have banded together to advocate for a specific dish. There’s no sandwich lobby, no burrito trade association. The macaroni-and-cheese people have yet to get their act together.
Pizza is special, says Lynn Liddle, executive vice president for communications, investor relations, and legislative affairs at Domino’s Pizza and chair of the American Pizza Community — the APC, as it calls itself. “You can’t make pizza in a minute. You can’t drive through. We don’t have fryers,” Liddle says. At the same time, many pizza joints aren’t sit-down restaurants, and sometimes, as the pizzafolks have learned recently, the National Restaurant Association just doesn’t get it.
For decades, pizza makers have relied on the food’s natural advantage: Everybody loves it. Some 41 million Americans — more than the population of California — eat a slice of pizza on any given day. If pizza were a country, its sales would put it in the top 100 of global gross domestic product. “Pizza is, without a doubt, the food of the gods,” says a 2014 video produced by the American Chemical Society that explains the chemistry behind pizza’s appeal. “All pizzas deliver divine, rich, cheesy, mouthwatering experiences that hustle your brain’s pleasure centers into overdrive.”
Until recently the U.S. government was inclined to agree. Pizza is such an efficient cheese-delivery vehicle that a farmer-funded promotional agency, authorized and overseen by the federal government, pushed fast-food chains to load up pizzas with more cheese. That effort led to PizzaHut’s 2002 “Summer of Cheese” campaign and partially funded Domino’s 2009 introduction of its “American Legends” pizzas — pies topped with 40 percent more cheese. “These specialty pizzas are American as apple pie,” Domino’s crowed, as part of its marketing campaign.
More recently, though, pizza has become a target, lumped into a nutritional axis of evil along with French fries and soda. New federal nutrition standards for school lunches, part of a 2010 law, squarely targeted pizza’s dominance in cafeterias. Menu-labeling rules, which take effect later this year, have seemed particularly onerous to pizzeria owners. And in the popular imagination, no less than First Lady Michelle Obama and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, though they claim to love the stuff, have emerged as enemies of pizza in their push for healthier school lunches. “I hear people say, ‘We would like to improve the school lunch program, but the kids, all they want to do is eat pizzas and burgers,’” Colicchio said in testimony to Congress in 2010. “We are adults here. It is up to us to do better.”
One by one, other purveyors of fast food have been convinced, nudged along by new laws or public shaming. McDonald’s, for example, voluntarily took soda out of Happy Meals and added calorie counts to its menus long before the government required it. Wendy’s also removed soda from its children’s menu, and Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden and Red Lobster, has reduced calories and sodium in its kids’ meals and made vegetables and milk the default side options.
Pizza advocates have taken a different, more combative tack. They’ve separated themselves from other food groups in Washington to become their own lobbying force. They’re not throwing money around — pizza’s biggest spenders devoted less than $500,000 to lobbying last year and just $1.5 million in political contributions in the last two election cycles. But they have notched some successes, proving that under the right circumstances, firm resolve and a thin crust can still be persuasive in Congress.
The early rumblings of the war on pizza began more than two decades ago, when Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, began calling for chain restaurants to put calorie information front-and-center on their menus. At first, Wootan got little traction in Congress, so she directed her lobbying efforts at city councils and state legislatures instead. New York City was the first to sign on, in 2006, and more than a dozen similar laws were enacted in other cities and states. Even the National Restaurant Association eventually supported a national menu-labeling law, and in 2010 it passed as part of the Affordable Care Act.
But when the Food and Drug Administration’s draft regulations came out a year later, pizza makers were ticked. They said they, too, supported a national labeling law, but what they didn’t like — and continue to oppose — were the specifics, which had been hashed out with help from the National Restaurant Association but not the pizza industry. (The association says that's not true.) Regardless, the APC’s Liddle says that given the potential combinations of pizza toppings, posting accurate calorie information would be “near impossible.” And chains that specialize in delivery have said it’s ridiculous to install a menu board with calorie information when so few customers would see it. “Having to post that information on a menu board is a very costly exercise in humoring government bureaucrats,” says Ron Berger, chief executive officer of Figaro’s Pizza, an Oregon-based chain.