Meet the Food Industry Front Groups That Push for Carcinogens in Your Food
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With its relatively meager budget and unfinished Web site, the Alliance for Food and Farming is just an amateur among a field of more established, well-funded front groups like the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (each with budgets in the millions). These groups are regularly quoted in the media as if they were legitimate sources of information and not astroturf organizations for the chemical and food industries. With its authoritative-sounding name, ACSH even managed to have itself listed as a "Resource" on the official Web site for a recent CNN special called "Toxic America," despite the fact that ACSH put out its own press release blasting the special as "bizarrely unscientific." As part of its strategy, the Center for Consumer Freedom maintains a number of issue-specific Web sites with names sure to guarantee search engines will find them like FishScam.com and MercuryFacts.org, both to counter the notion that some fish contain dangerous levels of mercury and humans should limit consumption of them.
The organizations named above are non-profits, which means a certain amount of information about them can be uncovered by looking at the financial disclosures they file with the IRS, but industry fronts can take other forms. For example, the Web site TruthInFood.com is maintained by Food-Chain Communications, a marketing firm that clearly specializes in promoting industrial agriculture and processed foods. While a list of its clients are not easily obtained, its founder, Kevin Murphy, has connections with many large beef and dairy industry organizations, including the National Grocer's Association and the National Council of Chain Restaurants.
Then there's the American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), a group founded solely to defend the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH). When AFACT was founded, Monsanto owned rbGH (it has since been sold to Elanco, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly). Conveniently, a consultant to Monsanto helped organize AFACT and the marketing firm Osborn & Barr (which includes a former Monsanto executive among its founders) gave the group money. AFACT calls itself "grassroots," but it is about as grassroots as a smokers' rights group organized by a tobacco company.
These front groups serve as one piece in a much larger puzzle intended to influence government, the media, health professionals and consumers. Members of Congress and their staff wake up to Capitol Hill metro stations plastered with advertisements from industries wishing to influence them, receive invitations to fancy events and educational briefings, and meet with lobbyists who provide them with industry-funded research and whitepapers. One industry group might lobby the government to allow the use of a pesticide, for example, and then turn around and claim (directly or through a front group) that the pesticide is safe because the government allows it.
Journalists, seeking to add "balance" or controversy to their stories, can always go to these organizations for quotes countering the statements of environmentalists, physicians and consumer advocates. And even when journalists -- or even universities -- are not seeking to feature the industry point of view, industry or its front groups are always there to insist they are given a chance to make their case. (In the case of universities, this often occurs when major donors threaten to withhold funding if certain speakers are invited to campus or professors teach courses on topics the donor finds inconvenient. And, unfortunately, the universities often side with the donors.)
With all of this misinformation, how can an average citizen discern between truth and propaganda? The most important thing to do is to consider the source of any message. One handy tool for this is Sourcewatch.org, a wiki maintained by the Center for Media and Democracy. Often, when a front group will not tell you which organizations or corporations are behind it, Sourcewatch* will. (Full disclosure: I am currently working with the Center for Media and Democracy, but I've used the site as my go-to on front groups for several years now.)