By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
Who said bipartisanship is dead in politics?
Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Massachusetts and Wisconsin came together at a Washington, D.C., news conference last week to address concerns about an industry that’s important to both states: Cranberries.
Last year, cranberry farmers in Wisconsin and Massachusetts accounted for 75 percent of the nation’s production of 7.5 million barrels of cranberries. And never mind the pilgrims: Badger State bogs and marshes deliver the lion’s share of that number — more than 4.3 million barrels last year.
How can the diminutive cranberry bring together Massachusetts U.S. Sens. John Kerry, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Republican, and Wisconsin U.S. Reps. Reid Ribble, R-8th District, and Ron Kind, D-3rd District?
Ocean Spray advertises cranberries as a “ninja fruit.” Here, in fact, was the evidence.
While the stated purpose of the Washington, D.C., caucus was to discuss boosting international sales of the fruit, the real goal was to bring attention to a new cranberry blight: bureaucrats from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have targeted cranberry juice in their ongoing war against — wait for it — sugar.
As anyone who has ever had fresh cranberries with Thanksgiving dinner can testify, they’re naturally a tart, even bitter fruit. That’s why cranberry juice, the highest-selling cranberry product, is sweetened with sugar — so much sugar that an 8-ounce class of Ocean Spray sweetened cranberry juice has more sugar at 36 grams than a similar serving of Coca-Cola with 27 grams.
The USDA hasn’t taken any formal action against cranberry juice. But cranberry farmers, cranberry cooperatives like Ocean Spray, and legislators from cranberry-growing states aren’t waiting.
Formation of the caucus came just days after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made national headlines, saying he wanted to ban the sale of any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces at convenience stores, restaurants, sports stadiums, movie theaters and vending machines inside his city.
Not yet on Bloomberg’s list: fruit juices.
The Cranberry Caucus has sent a letter to the USDA and first lady Michelle Obama, saying cranberries must be off limits in any sort of anti-sugar jihad.
In a news release announcing his membership in the group, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-6th District, called any proposed cranberry regulations from USDA “stupid” and devoid of common sense.
"Cranberries have a low level of natural sugar and have to be sweetened to make them appealing, but even with added sugar, they have less total sugar than many other fruits that are considered to be healthy,” Petri wrote. “The issue should not be added sugar but rather total sugar. If commonsense fails to catch up with the regulations, school children could be denied the choice of a uniquely healthful food."
And so it appears that the cranberry may become the bridge too far, the hypothetical hill to die on for over-zealous regulators purveyors. If they come for the cranberry, where will they stop?
Prohibition-era images flood the mind: jackbooted paramilitary officers of the USDA rappel from the sky to smash a dangerous sidewalk lemonade stand or swing by a patio on polyester-sheathed, high-tensile strength nylon-core ropes to snatch from a hand that ill-considered glass of sweetened iced tea.
Thus the slippery slope in a government-backed battle of the bulge where government regulation — instead of personal willpower — decides one's daily intake. Are those who are advocating healthy eating really trying to educate us about healthy options or only using the heavy hand of government to get what they want?
In any case, formation of a bipartisan — bipartisan, I say — congressional caucus to protect the cranberry from federal officials indicates our elected officials believe we’re already on the road to regulation. If so, get ready for a bumpy and flavorless ride.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, and has worked at the Heritage Foundation and on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at [email protected].