"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.
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.)
Another method is checking with organizations you know you can trust. In the case of the safety of pesticide residues on produce, the Produce for Better Health Foundation (whose donors include nearly every fruit and vegetable industry group and corporation imaginable) claims that pesticide residues on the Environmental Working Group’s "Dirty Dozen" list fall within the amount EPA and FDA say is "generally regarded as safe." I attempted to register for the Alliance for Food and Farming’s webinar (twice!) but was not permitted to participate, so I can only imagine its message is similar to this one.
So does that make pesticide residues safe? Consider a quote from the recently released President’s Cancer Panel: "We have sprayed pesticides which are inherent poisons throughout our shared environment. They are now in amniotic fluid. They are in our blood. They are in our urine. They are in our exhaled breath. They are in our mother’s milk. What is the burden of cancer that we can attribute to this use of poisons throughout our agricultural system? We won’t really know that answer until we do another experiment, which is to take the poisons out of our food chain, embrace a different kind of agriculture, a healthier agriculture, and see what happens."
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