Gary Ruskin

Soda Scandal: Journalists Fail to Reveal Sources Funded by Coca-Cola

During the investigation and subsequent collapse of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network, the New York Times and Associated Press discovered that prominent university professors working on obesity issues had been funded by The Coca-Cola Company.

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New York Times and Washington Post Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding From Monsanto

Following a Columbia Journalism Review article on whether science journalists should accept money from corporate interests, and whether there is adequate disclosure of sources’ corporate ties and conflicts of interest, U.S. Right to Know reviewed recent articles to assess how often journalists and columnists quote academic sources without stating that they are funded by the agrichemical giant Monsanto, which produces pesticides and GMOs.

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3 Journalists Who Are Disturbingly Cozy with the Agrichemical Industry

On September 23rd, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel admitted to receiving “plenty” of money from pro-agrichemical industry sources.

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Our Junk Food Nation

In recent months the major food companies have been trying hard to convince Americans that they feel the pain of our expanding waistlines, especially when it comes to kids. Kraft announced it would no longer market Oreos to younger children, McDonald's promoted itself as a salad producer and Coca-Cola said it won't advertise to kids under 12.

But behind the scenes it's hardball as usual, with the junk food giants pushing the Bush Administration to defend their interests. The recent conflict over what America eats, and the way the government promotes food, is a disturbing example of how in Bush's America corporate interests trump public health, public opinion and plain old common sense.

The latest salvo in the war on added sugar and fat came July 14- 15, when the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on childhood obesity and food marketing. Despite the fanfare, industry had no cause for concern; FTC chair Deborah Majoras had declared beforehand that the commission will do absolutely nothing to stop the rising flood of junk food advertising to children.

In June the Department of Agriculture denied a request from our group Commercial Alert to enforce existing rules forbidding mealtime sales in school cafeterias of "foods of minimal nutritional value" -- i.e., junk foods and soda pop. The department admitted that it didn't know whether schools are complying with the rules, but, frankly, it doesn't give a damn. "At this time, we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures recommended in your petition," wrote Stanley Garnett, head of the USDA's Child Nutrition Division.

Conflict about junk food has intensified since late 2001, when a Surgeon General's report called obesity an "epidemic." Since that time, the White House has repeatedly weighed in on the side of Big Food. It worked hard to weaken the World Health Organization's global anti-obesity strategy and went so far as to question the scientific basis for "the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes." Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson -- then our nation's top public-health officer -- even told members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association to "'go on the offensive' against critics blaming the food industry for obesity," according to a November 12, 2002, GMA news release.

Last year, during the reauthorization of the children's nutrition programs, Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois attempted to insulate the government's nutrition guidelines from the intense industry pressure that has warped the process to date. He proposed a modest amendment to move the guidelines from the USDA to the comparatively more independent Institute of Medicine. The food industry, alarmed about the switch, secured a number of meetings at the White House to get it to exert pressure on Fitzgerald. One irony of this fight was that the key industry lobbying came from the American Dietetic Association, described by one Congressional staffer as a "front for the food groups." Fitzgerald held firm but didn't succeed in enacting his amendment before he left Congress last year.

By that time the industry's lobbying effort had borne fruit, or perhaps more accurately, unhealthy alternatives to fruit. The new federal guidelines no longer contain a recommendation for sugar intake, although they do tell people to eat foods with few added sugars. The redesigned icon for the guidelines, created by a company that does extensive work for the junk food industry, shows no food, only a person climbing stairs.

Growing industry influence is also apparent at the President's Council on Physical Fitness. What companies has the government invited to be partners with the council's Challenge program? Coca-Cola, Burger King, General Mills, Pepsico and other blue chip members of the "obesity lobby."

In January the council's chair, former NFL star Lynn Swann, took money to appear at a public relations event for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, a vending machine trade group activists have been battling on in-school sales of junk food.

Not a lot of subtlety is required to understand what's driving Administration policy. It's large infusions of cash. In 2004 "Rangers," who bundled at least $200,000 each to the Bush/Cheney campaign, included Barclay Resler, vice president for government and public affairs at Coca-Cola; Robert Leebern Jr., president of federal affairs at Troutman Sanders PAG, lobbyist for Coca-Cola; Richard Hohlt of Hohlt & Co., lobbyist for Altria, which owns about 85 percent of Kraft foods; and José "Pepe" Fanjul, president, vice chairman and COO of Florida Crystals Corp., one of the nation's major sugar producers.

Hundred-thousand-dollar men include Kirk Blalock and Marc Lampkin, both Coke lobbyists, and Joe Weller, chairman and CEO, Nestle USA. Altria also gave $250,000 to Bush's inauguration this year, and Coke and Pepsi gave $100,000 each. These gifts are in addition to substantial sums given during the 2000 campaign.

For their money, the industry has been able to buy into a strategy on obesity and food marketing that mirrors the approach taken by Big Tobacco. That's hardly a surprise, given that some of the same companies and personnel are involved: Junk food giants Kraft and Nabisco are both majority-owned by tobacco producer Philip Morris, now renamed Altria. Similarity number one is the denial that the problem (obesity) is caused by the product (junk food). Instead, lack of exercise is fingered as the culprit, which is why McDonald's, Pepsi, Coke and others have been handing out pedometers, funding fitness centers and prodding kids to move around.

When the childhood obesity issue first burst on the scene, HHS and the Centers for Disease Control funded a bizarre ad campaign called Verb, whose ostensible purpose was to get kids moving. This strategy has been evident in the halls of Congress as well. During child nutrition reauthorization hearings, the man some have called the Senator from Coca-Cola, Georgia's Zell Miller, parroted industry talking points when he claimed that children are "obese not because of what they eat at lunchrooms in schools but because, frankly, they sit around on their duffs watching Eminem on MTV and playing video games." And that, of course, is the fault not of food marketers but of parents. Miller's office shut down a Senate Agriculture Committee staff discussion of a ban on soda pop in high schools by refreshing their memories that Coke is based in Georgia.

A related ploy is to deny the nutritional status of individual food groups, claiming that there are no "good" or "bad" foods, and that all that matters is balance. So, for example, when the Administration attacked the WHO's global anti-obesity initiative, it criticized what it called the "unsubstantiated focus on 'good' and 'bad' foods." Of course, if fruits and vegetables aren't healthy, then Coke and chips aren't unhealthy. While such a strategy is so preposterous as to be laughable, it is already having real effects.

Less than a month after Cadbury Schweppes, the candy and soda company, gave a multimillion-dollar grant to the American Diabetes Association, the association's chief medical and scientific officer claimed that sugar has nothing to do with diabetes, or with weight. Industry has also bankrolled front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom, an increasingly influential Washington outfit that demonizes public-health advocates as the "food police" and promotes the industry point of view.

Meanwhile, public opinion is solidly behind more restrictions on junk food marketing aimed at children, especially in schools. A February Wall Street Journal poll found that 83 percent of American adults believe "public schools need to do a better job of limiting children's access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food." Two bills recently introduced in Congress, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy's Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention (HeLP) America Act, both place significant restrictions on the ability of junk food producers to market in schools.

Interestingly, this is a crossover issue between red and blue states. Concern about obesity and excessive junk food marketing to kids is shared by people across the political spectrum, and some conservatives, such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have argued for restricting junk food marketing to children. This may be one of the reasons New York Senator Hillary Clinton has once again become vocal on the topic of marketing to children, although Senator Clinton has called not for government intervention but merely for industry self-regulation, requesting that the companies "be more responsible about the effect they are having" -- exactly the policy the industry wants.

A vigorous government response would clearly garner the sympathy of the majority of Americans. The growing chasm between what the public wants and the Administration's protection of the profits of Big Food is a powerful example of the decline of democracy in this country. Let them eat chips!

Tough Love for the Obesity Lobby

The Bush Administration has a problem with personal responsibility. They make a big deal about it for nearly everyone -- except themselves and the corporate big shots who finance their campaigns.

A case in point is the recent World Health Organization's proposal to combat the spread of obesity, diabetes and related illnesses throughout the world. The WHO proposal -- called officially the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health -- would encourage governments to adopt a number of common-sense steps, from better food labeling and limits on junk food advertising to the promotion of healthful diets with more fruits and vegetables, and less sugar. It also urges governments to make sure that schools promote such diets, not junk food and soda pop.

Hardly radical stuff, and long overdue. WHO's own studies show that unhealthful diets and physical inactivity have become the leading causes of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer throughout the world.

One would think the U.S. would be eager to sign on. We know this problem first-hand: some two-thirds of us are overweight, plus, the President himself is a fitness buff. And let's face it. Much of the crescendo in global lard comes from the junk food diet that U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's and Kraft have exported.

On top of all this, two years ago, President Bush called for a new ethos that says "we're responsible for our decisions." So you'd think he'd be the first to take some responsibility for the consequences of the actions of the country he leads. Fat chance. Instead, the Bush Administration has blocked the WHO anti-obesity plan, and re-opened it for weakening amendments. The Administration has hauled out its focus-group-tested slogans to pass the buck -- and ensure lots of them for its friends in the junk food industry.

First, "science." Whenever the Administration wants to muddy the waters it invokes the experts in the white coats. So here, William R. Steiger, a top aide at the Department of Health and Human Services (and George Bush Sr.'s godson), wrote to WHO that there are "numerous instances" where its food policies "are not supported with sufficient scientific evidence." Come on. Maybe the scientists employed by the junk food industry can't figure this one out, but our grandmothers did and their grandmothers before them. Dr. Walter Tsou, president-elect of the American Public Health Association, observed "Any mother with any common sense knows that you don't feed your kids cookies and ice cream every day unless you want to see them gain weight."

Is that really so hard? Is it really so hard to figure out that a Big Mac and a large shake, with 1600 calories combined, might cause some problems on the obesity front?

As it happens there is no shortage of science that confirms this common sense. Take fast food. One study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that boys and girls who ate fast food three times in the previous week had far higher calorie intakes: 40 and 37 percent, respectively - than did those who did not eat fast food. Another study, published in this month's issue of Pediatrics, estimates that the consumption of fast food could account for an additional six pounds of weight gain per child per year. But this research is not paid for by the junk food industry. So in the interesting logic of the Administration, that apparently makes it "junk science." Kaare R. Norum, the Norwegian professor who chaired the scientific panel that advised WHO, notes that the attacks on the WHO's scientific evidence "have not come from scientists. They have come only from industry."

Next the administration invokes "personal responsibility." Steiger, the top HHS aide, wrote to WHO that the Administration "supports personal responsibility to choose a diet conducive to individual energy balance, weight control and health." Steiger similarly told the Washington Post that "what's lacking" in the WHO approach "is the notion of personal responsibility as opposed to what the government can do." This echoes the spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who said: "There is no mention [in the WHO strategy] of what we consider to be the fundamentally important issue of individual responsibility."

The echo is not coincidental. Note that the Bush Administration is not demanding some personal responsibility from junk food bigwigs such as sugar magnate Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, Safeway CEO Steven Burd, and Richard F. Hohlt, a lobbyist for Altria (formerly Philip Morris), which is majority owner of Kraft. It is not asking them to take responsibility for the billions of dollars they and other junk food marketers spend seducing our kids with saturation ads, nor for the obvious and predictable consequences of these actions - i.e. the diseases associated with the consumption of junk food.

Each of these fat cats has purchased an indulgence in the form of bundled $200,000 contributions to the 2004 Bush campaign. So the Administration points the finger instead at parents and their children. The finger comes no less from the Department of Health and Human Services, which probably should be renamed the Department of Junk Food Marketing and Corporate Services.

The sugar industry has wanted to hobble WHO since the organization said that free sugars should comprise less than 10% of total daily calories. Last April, the Sugar Association actually threatened WHO that it would sic its allies in Congress on the U.S.'s annual $406 million contributions.

Now, we agree that people do need to take more responsibility for the junk they put into their mouths, and for their failure to get off their behinds. But the global obesity lobby has to take some responsibility too, for its nonstop propaganda campaign, especially when it is aimed at children. That includes Henry Kravis, founding partner of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which is majority owner of Channel One, an in-school marketing service that bombards schoolchildren with ads for soda pop and junk food. True, Mr. Kravis has bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign. But surely President Bush understands that sometimes, we just have to say "No."

Executives such as Mr. Kravis seem to have a hard time grasping another Administration nostrum -- that parents are the proper guides to their children's behavior. They persist in injecting themselves into the relationship between parents and children. They seduce kids with ads crafted by psychologists to turn the kids into relentless nags for junk food that many parents do not want their kids to have. These executives have got to take some responsibility for the way they disrupt the home. The President should remind them of this.

And it's time for the U.S. government to take some responsibility itself, and stop hindering parents' efforts to instill healthful eating habits in their kids. Forgotten in the daily barrage of junk food ads is the way the government actually encourages these very corporations. Under U.S. tax law, for example, most corporate advertising is tax deductible. So next time your kid throws a tantrum because you don't want to buy her another Big Mac, you might recall that your tax dollars are helping to pay for the ads that induced your child's snit.

The obesity lobby has developed a welfare mentality, and it's past time for the Bush people to show some tough love. It should stop -- right now -- the tax break for advertising of junk food, and advertising to children generally. No more taxpayer-subsidized meddling in the American family. No more corporate welfare to goad kids to throw tantrums for Whoppers, Cokes, M&Ms and the rest.

The President himself should take some personal responsibility for this step. He should call Lanny Griffith and Rob Leebern, lobbyists for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Coke, into his office. He should tell them that even though they each have bundled $100,000 to the Bush 2004 campaign, the time has come for them to decide whether they are going to be part of the problem or part of the solution -- and that the government isn't going to help them anymore if they persist in the former.

Then the President should get on the phone to Director-General J.W. Lee of WHO and apologize for the moral relativists at his Department of Health and Human Services who lack the courage to stand up to the junk food lobby.

Eighteen months ago, President Bush himself said "when I talk about personal responsibility in America, I expect there to be corporate responsibility as well, and we will hold those to account who do not uphold those high standards in America."

It's time for the President to walk his talk. He should hold junk food and advertising executives accountable for their role in promoting obesity and disease throughout the globe. Literally millions of lives are at stake across the planet. The world needs a coalition of the willing in the cause of global health and freedom from unchecked corporate influence on children. Who better than America to lead?

Jonathan Rowe is a writer, contributing editor to The Washington Monthly, and a founder of the Tomales Bay Institute. Gary Ruskin is a founder of Commercial Alert.

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