How did a California initiative requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food (Prop 37) get defeated in 2012 despite the state's high level of food activism? How did a ban on the sale of large soft drinks in New York City fail the same year despite the link of such drinks to obesity? Welcome to the world of food "front groups" -- fake grassroots groups, sometimes called "Astroturf," created by Big Food to keep health and safety regulations from cutting into sales and profits.
According to SourceWatch, a classic front group is set up by a public relations agency to provide a populist, human face to an issue at the same time it refocuses the debate. To defeat Prop 37, for example, food giants like Monsanto and chemical companies set up the Coalition Against the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme which argued that food prices would go up under the proposition. It worked. To defeat Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban on large soft drinks, the American Beverage Association set up a “grassroots” group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to claim that freedom of choice was under attack which also worked. Needless to say "citizens" don't have the $46 million that defeated Prop 37 or the millions the beverage industry "poured" into the pro-soft drink initiative, according to the New York Times.
Even though a front group's phone number or web site may be synonymous with its sponsor industry, and it might have few actual "members," its funding sources are downplayed or hidden. Despite high budgets, fancy signs and T-shirts and even buses for national tours, front groups seek to appear "grassroots"--as if they simply sprouted up from citizen passion or outrage. Certainly food industry groups campaign under their trade names too---think "the incredible, edible egg" or "Got Milk"--but faux groups intentionally mislead. They usually have "big tent" names like the Alliance for Abundant Food and Oregonians for Food & Shelter, both of which sound populist but do Monsanto's bidding.
Some front groups like the California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse and The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) pretend to be little guys taking a stand against excessive lawsuits when they actually work against our right to sue chemical and pesticide companies which harm people or the environment.
Here are some, but by no means all, Big Food front groups and deceptive tactics they use.
The Center for Consumer Freedom
This long-standing front group was set up by former lobbyist and Newt Gingrich crony Richard Berman in 1995 with $600,000 from the Philip Morris tobacco company. Its original mission was to fight smoking bans in restaurants, but it went on to fight public health initiatives against junk food, meat, and alcohol, even fighting Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) over its proposal to lower the blood alcohol content limits for drivers.
In addition to attacking MADD, the Center has attacked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Science in the Public Interest and set up web sites discrediting animal rights groups. “Our offensive strategy is to shoot the messenger," admits Berman. "Given the activists’ plans to alarm beyond all reason, we’ve got to attack their credibility as spokespersons.” The Center has so aggressively defended junk food, a USA Today editorial said it should rename its site called FatforProfit.com.
A recent oped on Oregon Live by senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom Will Coggin called the movement against GMOs "a conspiracy theory that has somehow hoodwinked a vast consensus within the scientific community," reminiscent of the stance of climate change deniers.
Do you think of Big Ag as dominated by white men? Not so says CommonGround, "a national movement of farm women who share information about farming and the food we grow." The website, decorated with earnest, 1950's-era 4H-style photos like a woman lovingly holding a pig says, "Consumers aren’t getting the real story about American agriculture" so CommonGround's farm women want to start "a conversation between women who grow food, and the women who buy it."
But CommonGround's salt-of-the-earth message is betrayed by its financial links to Osborn Barr Communications, Monsanto's PR agency, report Ronnie Cummins and Alexis Baden-Mayer of Organic Consumers. And the "conversation" the farm women want to start will probably begin with how safe hormones and antibiotics in the food supply are and end with the safety of GMOs.
Osborn Barr was also behind Monsanto's pro-rBGH farmer front group, American Farmers for Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), covered in depth in my expose Born with a Junk Food Deficiency. "As farmers, we have an obligation to feed the world's growing population," said Bill Rowekamp, a Minnesota dairy farmer who shilled for AFACT. Recombinant bovine growth hormone "is a boon to the environment. For, every million cows that are supplemented with the hormone, that's the equivalent, in terms of a carbon footprint, of taking 100,000 cars off the road," said Rowekamp.
The Enough Movement
Many front groups appeal to consumers' freedom of choice or their pocketbooks. But a cagey campaign from a livestock drug company rolled out last summer, appeals to their humanitarianism. "Join the ENOUGH movement and become an advocate for a food secure future" says the "sensible table" website run by Eli Lilly's Elanco, as if it's an arm of the United Nations or the World Food Organization. Elanco, which bought Monsanto's rBGH in 2008, has been buying up other livestock-related companies and become the second largest animal drug company in the world. Similar to Monsanto, it has set its sights on overseas food markets
Like AFACT, the ENOUGH movement calls chemicals and biotech-based agriculture green because more performance is derived out of each animal. "Simply by using practices available today or already in the pipeline, cows around the world can increase their output…enough to satisfy future global demand," says the ENOUGH campaign. The claims sound similar to a pro rBGH op-ed by a Hoover Institution writer in the Washington Times. "Fewer cows means less methane produced by bovine intestinal tracts, and manure production is cut by about 3.6 million tons” it said. "At the same time, more than 5.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel (enough to power 8,800 homes) are saved, greenhouse gas emissions are lowered by 30,000 metric tons."
GMOs and biotech are the answer to world hunger says Elanco, who happens to specialize in both. "Not one person has suffered negative effects from innovations like GMOs, yet 25,000 people die every day from malnutrition," it charges. The ENOUGH front campaign lays the blame for world starvation on biotech critics who can afford what it calls "luxury" foods and not the multinational food giants cornering world food markets and driving small farmers out of business.
Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition and other "Health" Institutes
How do you convince regulators, school systems and consumers that sugary cereals and soft drinks are not bad for children and actually good for them? How do you convince them the sugary junk food is not behind growing U.S. obesity? You create a "health institute" with credentialed scientists like General Mills' Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, Coca-Cola's Beverage Institute For Health and Wellness and even Gatorade's Sports Science Institute. General Mills hired at least 11 registered dietitians to serve as “nutrition scientists” or “nutrition communicators” on its institute reports the Center for Food Safety. They “work with leading scientists from universities around the globe," says General Mills.
The institutes are in good company says public health lawyer Michele Simon. More than half of the 206 papers published about the nutritional value of soft drinks (if not an oxymoron) were funded by beverage companies it was found in a literature search. "Organizations such as the American Council on Science and Health and the International Food Information Council, for example, present themselves as legitimate scientific sources furthering the public interest." writes Simon. "In reality they are creations of multimillion-dollar corporate funders."
The dairy industry often sets up faux groups to stimulate milk sales in the young which are continually dropping. It has conducted onsite promotions within public school systems called the "Healthiest Student Bodies" in which students could win an iPod, Fender guitar, or sports gear if they went to a certain pro-milk site. Milk sellers also shamelessly launched a kid-friendly spoof-y musical group called White Gold and the Calcium Twins that rocks out about milk's benefits to hair, teeth, nails and biceps on YouTube. It created an animated cartoon called the "Moo Factory" showing milk cartons moving by on a conveyor belt surrounded by assorted farm animals. A helium balloon keeps appearing that says "Tell Your Friends."
Faux Food Researchers
Food fronts and deceptions are not always groups or campaigns. They can also be individual researchers funded by Big Food. In 2008, I exposed how the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) was forced to print a correction revealing that the authors of an article it published who argued for a higher recommended dietary allowance of protein were, in fact, industry shills. Sharon L. Miller was “formerly employed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association,” and author Robert R. Wolfe, PhD, received money from the Egg Nutrition Center, the National Dairy Council, the National Pork Board, and the Beef Checkoff through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association," said the JAMA clarification. In fact, Miller’s email address at the time was firstname.lastname@example.org which should might have been JAMA’s first tip-off.
Wolfe, a professor at the Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, boasts a paper trail of "scientific" food articles funded by Big Food, often linking health problems in the elderly to red meat and milk "deficiencies" in their diets. Ka-ching
I have also written about some widely publicized milk-as-a-diet-food studies that also emanated from a Big Food funded academic like Wolfe. The research behind the milk-will-make-you-thin claims was largely conducted by Michael Zemel, director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee, who had "patented the claim that calcium or dairy products can prevent or treat obesity," reported USA Today. "The university owns the patent and has licensed it to Dairy Management Inc."