Sen. Elizabeth Warren / Photo: Shutterstock

Six U.S. senators are pressing the National Restaurant Association to provide detailed information about its use of proceeds from the ServSafe food-safety training course to pay for lobbying activities.

The group co-signed and sent a letter yesterday to the trade association, requesting that it clarify such matters as how much was collected in fees for the course during each of the last five years; how much of the money was channeled into lobbying and campaign contributions in each of those years; and what the program costs to run per enrollee.  The letter gave the association a deadline of March 3.

The communication also asks that the senators be provided with a full set of course materials so they can determine if the most basic curriculum merits any fee at all. It cites a New York Times report that described the material as so commonsensical and rudimentary that employees can pick up the do’s and don’ts within their first few minutes on the job.

But the content strongly suggests the senators have already formed a damning view of the NRA channeling proceeds from the course into the revenue pool from which the association draws its lobbying dollars. The missive characterizes the practice as the “underhanded and unscrupulous weaponization of ServSafe.

The communication was signed by Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch of Vermont, Patty Murray of Washington and Jeff Merkeley of Oregon. All are Democrats except Sanders, an independent who usually votes in accordance with the Democrats.

Their demand for information from the restaurant association stems from a story that appeared in the Times on Jan. 17 about the trade group’s use of ServSafe revenues for lobbying. The article asserted that the association dupes restaurant employees into funding efforts by management to defeat legislative and regulatory proposals that would benefit the workers.

It noted that many jurisdictions require restaurant workers to undergo food-safety training as a condition of employment, and that the basic $15 ServSafe course is by far the most popular choice.  The Times accurately reported that the fees, whether paid by the employees themselves or footed by their employers, can be used for lobbying.

The article quotes experts’ assessments that the practice is legal. And many trade groups use the same model of offering instructional and certification courses to raise revenues for lobbying and other purposes. The arrangement has been in place at the National Restaurant Association since 2007.

Yet the Times slugged the story “Breaking News,” and the senators’ letters referred to the Times’ reporting as an “investigation.”

A union-backed group called One Fair Wage, a frequent opponent politically of the restaurant association, revealed after the article aired that it had pitched it to the Times.

A day after the story was posted online, One Fair Wage announced that it was launching a $10 training program to compete with ServSafe. The group said the proceeds would fund lobbying for legislation and regulatory measures that benefit restaurant workers.

Also on that day, two ServSafe alumni sued the association for not informing them of how the $15 each paid for the course would be used. The suit seeks class action status, meaning it would seek redress for the millions of restaurant workers who have taken the course since 2007.

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