A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups: How Corporate Lobbyists Control Public Discourse
Last month, the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) released the third edition of its report, Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Improving Understanding. What sounds like a reasonable and helpful document is in fact the product of a well-oiled PR machine whose board of trustees includes executives from such food giants such as Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Mars.
In response to such tactics, I have authored a new report for Center for Food Safety that exposes the well-funded organizations and highly-sophisticated public relations strategies increasingly deployed to defend the food industry.
Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups describes how Big Food and Big Ag hide behind friendly-sounding organizations such as: the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, Center for Consumer Freedom and Alliance to Feed the Future. The idea is to fool the media, policymakers and general public into trusting these sources, despite their corporate-funded PR agenda.
With growing concern over the negative impacts of our highly industrialized and overly-processed food system, the food industry has a serious public relations problem on its hands. Instead of cleaning up its act, corporate lobbyists are trying to control the public discourse. As a result, industry spin is becoming more prevalent and aggressive.
For example, the same group cited above—IFIC—in addition to publishing industry-friendly reports, also infiltrates professional conferences such as the annual meeting of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nation’s trade association for registered dieticians.
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.
In addition to IFIC, other front groups that have been around for some time include the notorious industry attack dog, Center for Consumer Freedom, which began in the 1990s with funding from tobacco giant Philip Morris.
In the recent controversy in New York City over limiting the size of sugary beverages, Center for Consumer Freedom took out full-page ads in major newspapers showing Mayor Michael Bloomberg dressed as a woman with the tagline, “New Yorkers need a Mayor, not a Nanny.” Name-calling and scaremongering are very effective tactics for distracting away from the issue at hand: a serious public health problem.
Big Soda also invented an entirely new front group to do its bidding called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, which pretended to represent individuals, but in fact was funded by the American Beverage Association, the Washington DC-based lobbying arm of the soft drink industry. It’s a brilliant strategy when you realize that creating a group named “Coke and Pepsi Opposing Public Health in New York” just wouldn’t fly.
By relying on a front group such as the Center for Consumer Freedom to do its dirty work, well-known companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are able to keep their noses clean, and their valuable brand reputations intact.
This report is extremely timely because now more than ever new front groups are forming so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. And with deliberately confusing names such as Alliance to Feed the Future, Center for Food Integrity and Global Harvest, it can be challenging to tell the good guys from the bad. I often have to remind people not to confuse the industry front group Center for Food Integrity with either the Center for Food Safety or the Food Integrity Campaign. Front groups position themselves cleverly to try and confuse media outlets, which too often just assume the information is coming from a reliable source.
The new report answers such questions as, “What is the Different Between Trade Groups and Front Groups?” (mostly that trade groups lobby, while front groups rely more on PR), “What are Common Front Group Tactics?” (scaremongering and buying science, for example) and “How Can We Fight Front Groups?” Most importantly, the report contains numerous examples of front groups, including recently-formed groups created in response to heightened criticism and awareness, along with scientific “institutes” invented by such food giants such as Coca-Coca, Nestlé and General Mills.
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, from public health epidemics, to environmental disasters, to horrific exploitation of humans and animals alike. It’s a testament to the food movement’s success that industry is responding with such sophisticated and well-funded public relations efforts.
But we can’t allow these disingenuous and deceptive tactics to undermine our good work. It’s imperative that reporters, policymakers and the general public do their homework to learn exactly who is behind these industry front groups and not fall for their biased propaganda and public relations stunts.
Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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