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Meet the Food Industry Front Groups That Push for Carcinogens in Your Food

Pseudoscience, front groups and smear campaigns against scientists questioning industrial agriculture are used to convince the public that chemical-ridden food is safe.

"You've probably heard of the 'Dirty Dozen' -- a list of produce items identified by the Environmental Working Group that reportedly contain too many pesticide residues. I thought you might like to know about this webinar that provides perspective on pesticide residues," said an email sent by Elizabeth Pivonka, a registered dietitian who serves as the president and CEO for the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

She sent the email to a few employees of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who then forwarded it on to employees of state health departments. The webinar, which claimed to expose the "real" danger of the " Dirty Dozen" ("scaring consumers away from eating fresh fruits and vegetables" and having a "negative impact on public health at a time when we are facing an obesity epidemic"), was put on by the Alliance for Food and Farming -- a self-described non-profit organization made up of agricultural groups seeking to "educate and inform consumers and the media on issues of food safety and farming."

Sounds benign, right? In fact, it sounds downright helpful. Fortunately, after the CDC employees failed to question the webinar, an employee of the New York State Department of Health shot the webinar invitation out to a listserv asking, "Is this an industry group promoting conventional farming?" One look at the Alliance's Web site is enough to answer that with a qualified yes! The front page of the site touts in large font that "U.S. farmers produce the safest, most abundant food supply in the world" -- that's industry codespeak for "please don't question us -- just buy and eat the food we give you no matter how we choose to produce it." But who does the alliance represent? The Web site does not say, and when asked, the organization refuses to divulge its members -- a common tactic of industry front groups.

In fact, the Alliance for Food and Farming represents a number of mostly California-based farm and pesticide groups including the California Strawberry Commission, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Association of Pest Control Advisers, Western Growers, Sunkist Growers, the Produce Marketing Association, the California Tomato Farmers, and the California Table Grape Commission.

You might remember the California Farm Bureau from the movie Food, Inc., in which they were caught on film arguing that foods containing clones should not be labeled. Or perhaps you've heard of the California Strawberry Commission's pet cause du jour: legalizing the pesticide methyl iodide, a carcinogen so potent it is used to induce cancer in the lab. In other words, this is not the bunch that government regulators and health professionals should turn to for unbiased, factual information about the danger of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables.

Front groups are a common vehicle industry uses to delude, confuse, and sometimes overtly defraud the public. In her book, Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappé explains how the food industry learned its tactics from the tobacco industry, citing a 1969 tobacco industry internal memo: "Doubt is our product. It is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

Lappé says, "The food industry long ago saw the benefits in fomenting confusion; confusion defuses public outcry about our toxic food system. Long after the discovery of the neurotoxic, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting effects of farm chemicals, we're still debating the merits of organic agriculture." In addition to front groups, she lists industry-funded pseudoscience and well-financed smear campaigns against scientists questioning industrial agriculture as other tactics often used to convince the public they are providing us with unbiased facts.

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