Brandon Scholz calls it "a vast, right-wing conspiracy." He's being facetious; he says it with a laugh.
The president and CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association, Scholz is talking about a state budget provision to prohibit local governments from restricting the sale of food or nonalcoholic beverages based on "calories, portion size, or other nutritional criteria."
The provision, a response to New York City's court-blocked ban on large, sugary drinks, passed the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee at the urging of state Rep. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend. It was promptly lauded by groups including the Grocers Association and Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
Ironically, this happened just days after the state Assembly moved to mandate healthier choices by state food stamp recipients. One hand micromanages what people can eat; the other forbids it.
Ed Lump, the restaurant association's president and CEO, confirms his group - along with grocers and associations representing state convenience stores and movie theaters - "requested the introduction" of this provision. These four groups collectively spent about $778,000 on lobbying during the 2011-12 legislative session.
Some fear the preemption language will stifle local initiatives to promote healthier choices, in response to concerns over obesity, diabetes and other food-related woes. "We don't know what the scope of it will be," says Kyle Pfister, a private public health consultant in Madison.
Mark Pertschuk of Grassroots Change, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group, pegs preemption as a key multi-industry tactic to "thwart public health and grassroots citizen engagement" on issues ranging from tobacco and alcohol policy, to food safety.
Wisconsin state lawmakers have previously disallowed local laws regarding guns, sick leave mandates and minimum wages. Other current budget provisions would keep local governments from exceeding state erosion control rules or imposing residency rules on workers.
Pertschuk says many U.S. public health gains began at the local level, where ordinary citizens have greater access. For example, Madison and Appleton banned smoking in bars and restaurants before this was done by the state.
"This is democracy at its finest," Pertschuk says. "Don't take away the power of local communities, where we have traditionally protected our health and safety."
Pertschuk credits a group he calls "the other NRA" - the National Restaurant Association - with advancing food-rule preemption legislation in Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Mississippi, and now Wisconsin.
"This is a national campaign that's managed from Washington," Pertschuk says.
Lump concedes his group's national affiliate "certainly embraces the strategy" of preempting local food rules. But, he adds, "this is a strategy we'd probably be doing without any of their embracing."
Scholz, meanwhile, ties his association's involvement in the push for food-rule preemption in Wisconsin directly to a similar effort that passed in Mississippi - just not in a way that might ring conspiracy theorists' bells.
On March 12, Scholz says, he was driving to Rothschild for a grocers association meeting. He heard a radio report about the Mississippi bill, which bars local governments not just from capping portion sizes but also from requiring disclosure of calorie counts and preventing the sale of kids' meals with toys.
"I said doggone, I like that, we've got to do that in Wisconsin," Scholz recalls. He added the idea to the agenda, and it was favorably received. He later learned that the restaurant association and other groups were already backing this cause.
Scholz says his group wants to avoid having to eventually deal with "a patchwork of regulations throughout the state in different municipalities." Like the restaurant association, it believes food rules should be consistent throughout the state.
Lump argues that restaurants have been at the forefront of state efforts to promote food safety, through regulations and inspections. And he notes that many restaurants are working to get more healthful items on their menus.
"But for that to work," Lump says, "you've got to get consumers to buy those things."