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Food Industry Front Groups Peddle Dangerous Myths

New report discloses the Big Food and Ag dollars hiding behind astroturf organizations

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

Hormones and antibiotics in food won't harm you and MSG enhances the taste of food.

To oppose NYC's proposed soda ban, the soda industry created the front group New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, which ran ads such as this. (Photo: New Yorkers for Beverage Choices) These are some of the confusing and misleading messages that consumers are inundated with every day under the guise of 'factual evidence' peddled by alleged consumer and food safety groups.

A recent report titled Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups (IRS) published by the Center for Food Safety last week describes how Big Food and Big Ag "hide behind friendly-sounding organizations" in order to fool the media, policymakers and general public into trusting their companies and products.

As consumers become increasingly aware of the myriad problems associated with the "highly industrialized and overly-processed food system"—including the presence of antibiotics and hormones in animal products, the impact of pesticide use on both the environment and consumers, and the exploitation of animals and food system employees—the corporate food industry has had to result to alternative ways of countering the narrative.

"Instead of cleaning up its act, corporate lobbyists are trying to control the public discourse," writes public health attorney and report author, Michele Simon. "As a result, industry spin is becoming more prevalent and aggressive."

"Junk food companies, the biotech industry, and big agribusiness are all on the defense because the nation is waking up to the myriad problems our industrialized food system has created." -Report Author Michele Simon

Under names such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom, and the Alliance to Feed the Future, major corporations are able to spread their message through massive media campaigns which include advertisements, published research, op-ed articles, and TV appearances.

These campaigns often employ such tactics as "astroturfing" (or posing to represent a grassroots group), discrediting their critics, paying for research, and scaremongering in order to counter the debate.

For example, Simon gives the example of the International Food Information Council (IFIC) which is funded by major food, pesticide, and biotech companies including Kraft, McDonald’s, Nestle, PepsiCo, Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer CropScience, and Dupont:

In 2011, IFIC moderated a panel at this event called, “How Risky is Our Food? Clarifying the Controversies of Chemical Risks” in which the take-away message was not to worry about pesticides, and anybody who tells you otherwise is scaremongering and non-scientifically valid. At the 2012 conference last fall, IFIC was back again, with representatives on four separate panels, including dispelling any concerns about food additives.

Simon also cites the New York City soda controversy during which Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to place a ban on "super-sized" containers for sugary beverages.

The ban was successfully fought off by industry groups working under the guise of protecting the rights of citizens, including the Center for Consumer Freedom—which was founded in the 1990s with funding from Philip Morris— and New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a front for The American Beverage Association.

"New front groups are forming so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. And with deliberately confusing names [...] it can be challenging to tell the good guys from the bad," the report states. "Front groups position themselves cleverly to try and confuse media outlets, which too often just assume the information is coming from a reliable source."

Included in the report is a directory of a number of the current front groups, with their mission and funding information.

"Why does this matter so much?" writes Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. "Because questions of diet and health are of utmost importance to all of us. Diet-related illnesses are afflicting millions of Americans, including many of the nation’s children. One in three children born today will get Type II diabetes. For African-American and Hispanic children, it’s one in two. And it’s not just diabetes. It’s heart disease, certain cancers, and asthma."

"Junk food companies, the biotech industry, and big agribusiness are all on the defense because the nation is waking up to the myriad problems our industrialized food system has created," writes Simon. "It’s a testament to the food movement’s success that industry is responding with such sophisticated and well-funded public relations efforts."

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