UC Davis Sued for Failing to Release Public Records on GMOs and Pesticides

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News Release

For Immediate Release:  Thursday, August 18, 2016
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Consumer group U.S. Right to Know filed a lawsuit late Wednesday to compel the University of California, Davis to comply with requests for public records related to the university’s work on genetically engineered food, pesticides and its relationship with the agrichemical industry.

Since January 28, 2015, U.S. Right to Know has filed 17 public records requests with UC Davis as allowed under the California Public Records Act, but the university has provided a total of merely 751 pages in response to all of these requests, while similar requests at other universities have yielded thousands of pages each.

UC Davis has provided no estimate of when it will comply with the unfilled requests, as required by law.  It originally estimated production of documents in April 2015.  It has completed only one response – regarding the soda industry – but none of the 16 requests related to the agrichemical industry.

“We are conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the collaboration between the food and agrichemical industries, their front groups and several U.S. universities,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “So far, documents obtained from other universities have shown secretive funding arrangements and covert efforts to use taxpayer-funded university resources to promote the products of various corporations. The public has a right to know what is going on behind the scenes.”

These revelations have been covered in the New York Times, Boston Globe, the Guardian, Le Monde, STAT, Mother Jones and other outlets.

To underscore the agrichemical industry’s unease about U.S. Right to Know’s public records requests, a law firm that is allied with the agrichemical industry, Markowitz Herbold, has taken the unusual step of filing a public records request for all of U.S. Right to Know’s correspondence with UC Davis, including the responses to all public records requests.

Just over fifty years ago, on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law. “Fifty years later, FOIA is a crucial tool for uncovering corruption, wrongdoing, abuse of power, and to protect consumers and public health,” Ruskin said. The California Public Records Act is the California state version of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The plaintiff for the lawsuit is Gary Ruskin, in his capacity as co-director of U.S. Right to Know.  A copy of the complaint is available at: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/UCDaviscomplaint.pdf

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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Congress Backs Big Food Over Consumers; President Should Veto GMO Anti-Labeling Law

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Thursday, July 14, 2016
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Today’s vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to approve a law that allows food companies to avoid clearly labeling foods made with genetically engineered ingredients cheats consumers out of information they are entitled to have, and should be vetoed by President Obama, according to the consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know.

The measure passed the House in a 306 to 117 vote on Thursday.  The Senate approved the measure on July 7 after months of negotiations with a range of food industry players. It nullifies a mandatory GMO labeling law that took effect in Vermont on July 1, and prevents any other state from enacting its own mandatory labeling law.  Rather than requiring food makers to state the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in plain English, as the Vermont law provides, the new federal law would allow food companies instead to use codes, or to offer phone numbers or website addresses that consumers would need to access for the information.

“This bill is a sweetheart deal for the food and agrichemical industries, who want to keep consumers guessing about the contents of their food,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “There are legitimate questions about the health and environmental risks genetically engineered crops, including the glyphosate herbicide that many are doused with. President Obama should veto this legislation and champion the consumer’s right to know what’s in our food,” Ruskin said.

Backers have said the bill is supported by leading organic industry players such as the Organic Trade Association, and organizations such as the Environmental Working Group and Just Label It have lauded Sen. Debbie Stabenow, one of the architects of the anti-GMO labeling bill. But those organizations do not speak for the overwhelming majority of consumers who polls have shown want clear, on-label language regarding genetically engineered foods.

The bill contains numerous loopholes that would likely allow food companies to avoid even the codes or website links for countless food products.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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U.S. Right to Know’s Position on GMOs

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U.S. Right to Know is a consumer group. We are not opposed to genetic engineering or genetically engineered foods or crops; we advocate for a precautionary and transparent approach for all new food technologies.

New food technologies that involve genetic engineering should proceed only with robust testing for health and environmental risks, as well as with full transparency, including clear on-package labeling, open access to scientific data, and disclosure of industry influence over science and academia.

Genetically engineered foods may someday provide benefits to consumers; however, at this time, the overwhelming majority do not.

Most genetically engineered crops on the market are designed to confer tolerance to herbicides, a trait that allows for – and has resulted in – large increases in herbicide use on corn, soybeans and other crops. This use of large volumes of herbicides raises concerns about health risks of food made with these crops. Multiple scientific studies, and the World Health Organization’s cancer research unit, have validated these concerns.

It is incorrect to report that the science is settled on the safety and benefits of genetic engineering.  For details, see:

Media Reports That GMO Science Is Settled Are Flat-Out Wrong

U.S. Senate Declines to Advance Anti-Consumer Bill to Stop Mandatory GMO Labeling

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, March 16, 2016
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Statement of Gary Ruskin, Co-director of U.S. Right to Know

Today’s Senate vote is a victory for consumers and everyone who wants the right to know what’s in our food.

The Roberts measure, backed by the food industry, shows the contempt of our nation’s large food companies for their own customers, who overwhelmingly support labeling of genetically engineered food.

The industry campaign for the DARK Act will only accelerate consumer distrust of large food companies and their processed food.  In other words, the bill’s proponents will reap what they have sown.

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U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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Consumer Group USRTK Calls on Jon Entine to Reveal Funding, Ties to Industries He Defends

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, March 2, 2016
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Jon Entine, a leading chemical industry PR operative who has written dozens of articles defending corporate interests, today attacked the Columbia University’s Journalism School, stating that it “smeared Exxon,” engaged in “advocacy journalism,” and hired “an activist” to run the Journalism School.

In response, consumer group U.S. Right to Know called on Entine to reveal in full detail his funding and ties to the industries he defends in his writing.

“Who is funding Jon Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project?” asked Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “Will Jon Entine disclose his funders?  If not, what is he hiding?”

In his New York Post article today, Entine attacks award-winning journalist Susanne Rust, who is an investigative editor at the Columbia Journalism School.  Entine fails to mention that Rust and co-author Meg Kissinger exposed undisclosed industry ties of Entine’s group STATS in a 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, which reported that “STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.”

The Genetic Literacy Project previously declared that it is “affiliated with the non-profit Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).”  However, the Genetic Literacy Project has removed the reference to STATS from its website.  Entine’s New York Post byline previously referred to him as “a senior fellow at STATS,” and Entine has referred to STATS as “the organization that houses the Genetic Literacy Project, where I work.”

Entine is executive director of the agrichemical industry front group Genetic Literacy Project, a group with unknown funding that regularly attacks activists, journalists and scientists who raise concerns about the health and environmental risks of genetically engineered foods and pesticides.

Entine’s New York Post article is his second recent foray into the arena of climate politics, defending oil companies and attacking climate change heroes.  On February 1, Entine penned an attack on Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

Entine is an influential spokesman for the agrichemical industry. FOIA requests by U.S. Right to Know revealed Entine’s ties to New York Times reporter Amy Harmon, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, and pro-GMO journalist Keith Kloor.

In 2012, Entine claimed he had “no idea” that Syngenta was funding the organization (American Council on Science and Health) that published his book defending Syngenta’s herbicide, atrazine, according to reporting by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Entine has made a career of defending the chemical, pesticide, fossil fuel and nuclear power industries.  For more background on Jon Entine, read U.S. Right to Know’s fact sheet about him.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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FDA Plan to Measure Weed Killer Residues on Food Only a First Step

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News Release

For Immediate Release: February 17, 2016
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin, 415-944-7350, gary@usrtk.org

Consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know applauded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today for declaring that it plans to start testing for glyphosate residues in soybeans, corn, milk and eggs among other potential foods as concerns about the popular herbicide mount around the world. Though the FDA has responsibility for food safety and for routinely measuring for pesticide residues on certain foods, the agency has not routinely looked for glyphosate in its pesticide chemical residue monitoring regulatory program in the past.

Glyphosate is the chief ingredient in Roundup weed killer, made by Monsanto Co., and is also the active ingredient in hundreds of herbicide products sold around the world. It is the most widely used herbicide globally, and its use has surged in the United States with the spread of genetically engineered crops that have been designed to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate. But concerns about the chemical’s impact on human health and on the environment have been growing, and in March 2015 the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

“The FDA move is a good first step, but the testing must be thorough and widespread,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “USDA also should get on board.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts its own annual testing of foods for pesticide residues through a “pesticide data program,” that typically tests for several hundred different pesticides each year. But only once in the history of the 24-year program has the agency conducted tests for glyphosate residues. Those tests, in 2011, were limited to 300 soybean samples and found that 271 of the samples had glyphosate residues.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger

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Jon Entine is highly active in current chemical industry policy debates. He portrays himself as a science journalist, an objective authority on issues important to the chemical industry. But the evidence shows that he is actually a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to the chemical industry. His work features the defense of GMOs, pesticides, industrial chemicals, fracking and nuclear power.

Ties to Monsanto

Entine founded ESG MediaMetrics, a “sustainability” communications firm whose clients included Monsanto and the Vinyl Institute.

Entine is executive director of Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), which promotes GMOs and pesticides. It states that it is “funded by grants from non-partisan foundations” but does not disclose which ones, nor whether it receives funding from corporations, trade associations or other agrichemical industry interests.

In 2014, Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project partnered with a Monsanto-backed group, Academics Review, to sponsor the Biotechnology Literacy Project “boot camp” to teach scientists how to “best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public.”

Faculty at the first boot camp included representatives from GMO manufacturers, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto and promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon.

The boot camp’s agenda notes that “independent scientists, who the public holds in great esteem, can play a unique role in reframing the food safety and GMO debate” and that the camp will provide scientists with the “tools and support resources necessary to effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Entine conducted a similar boot camp to reframe the GMO debate for journalists and scientists in 2015.

Ties to Syngenta

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group funded in part by the agrichemical company Syngenta, published Entine’s 2011 book, “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” The book defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta.

A 2012 Mother Jones article about Entine describes the circumstances leading up to the publication of the book. The article, by Tom Philpott, is based in part on internal company documents, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, describing Syngenta’s PR efforts to get third-party allies to spin media coverage of atrazine.

In one email from 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for an additional $100,000 – “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years” – to produce an atrazine-friendly paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” to help educate media and scientists.

From a 2011 ACSH press release announcing Entine’s book:

“The American Council on Science and Health is pleased to announce a new book and companion friendly, abbreviated position paper … authored by Jon Entine, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and highly regarded science journalist … ACSH compiled this resource book and position to educate legislators, industry, media, consumers and parents on the actual risks of chemical exposure and use in everyday products.”

Entine denied any relationship with Syngenta and told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

Attacks on Syngenta Critics  

In a 2014 New Yorker article, based on internal Syngenta documents, Rachel Aviv revealed how Syngenta’s public relations team plotted to “discredit” UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes, whose research suggests that the herbicide atrazine is associated with birth defects. In emails, Syngenta employees discussed a psychological profile of Hayes and searched for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.”

A month later, Entine wrote an attack piece in Forbes describing Aviv’s story as a “botch puff piece” and calling Hayes “almost completely discredited.” Entine’s primary source was a “summary analysis” by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, posted on Academics Review, which claims to be an independent website started by independent scientists.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know reveal that Monsanto and a former Monsanto public relations executive helped Chassy to establish Academics Review as a website and platform to criticize individuals, organizations and others who raise questions about GMOs or pesticides.

A year before the New Yorker story, Entine used his Forbes platform to attack Hayes and defend Syngenta. Entine described “competing narratives” about why Hayes lost funding to continue researching atrazine. Entine’s narrative casts Hayes as the “activist scientist with a long history of discredited studies” against “one of the most scrutinized chemicals in history” that was unjustly banned in Europe. Hayes is, in fact, a full professor in the integrative biology department of UC Berkeley, one of the most prestigious public universities in the world.

The Murky Funding Trail to Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project

According to an email he sent to Philpott in 2012, Entine derives the bulk of his income from the Genetic Literacy Project:

“To hear Entine tell it, his defenses of atrazine and other pesticides are entirely pro bono and driven by his own initiative. He told me he gets “almost all” of his income from the Genetic Literacy Project, which, he added, is funded by what he called the Templeton and Searle foundations. The project is housed at the Statistical Assessment Service program at George Mason University, where Entine is a fellow. Though Entine would not specify which Searle trust funded the GLP, the Searle Freedom Trust’s 2010 tax form lists a $154,000 grant to STATS for a “Gene Policy and Science Literacy Project,” which sounds an awful lot like Entine’s.”

The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, disclosed in its IRS annual form 990s that it paid Entine for his work as a “research consultant” $140,600 in 2012, and $152,500 in 2013.

STATS is “funded by a grant from the Searle Freedom Trust and a donation from the American Statistical Association,” according to its website.  STATS declares on its IRS form 990 that it is a sister organization of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is not transparent about its funding. According to its most recent (2012) IRS Form 990, CMPA gave a $203,611 loan to STATS, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.”

In a 2009 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about chemical industry lobbying Suzanne Rust and Meg Kissinger described STATS:

“STATS claims to be independent and nonpartisan. But a review of its financial reports shows it is a branch of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. That group was paid by the tobacco industry to monitor news stories about the dangers of tobacco.”

The Center for Media and Public Affairs also receives grants from the George Mason University Foundation. For example, the GMU Foundation disclosed in its IRS form 990s that it gave to CMPA a $75,670 grant in 2013, and a $220,900 grant in 2012.

Charles Koch is a major funder of various GMU projects, according to a recent Greenpeace analysis of IRS filings from Koch’s nonprofit foundations. Koch spent $109.7 million on 361 campuses from 2005-2014. The GMU Foundation was the top recipient with $45.5 million, followed by two other GMU programs.

According to PR Watch, despite repeated attempts by students to obtain information about the grants, George Mason University refuses to comply because it has housed the grants under the private GMU Foundation instead of the university itself to prevent disclosures about their source.

According to the Guardian, from 2011-13, the GMU Foundation received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund – two groups that Mother Jones called the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement.”

Entine is a senior research fellow at GMU’s Center for Health & Risk Communication, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

Entine is a senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL). Donations to the World Food Center are not publicly disclosed.  The World Food Center’s founding director is Roger Beachy, who was also founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, which has close ties to Monsanto, and offices across the street from Monsanto.

Public Relations for the Agrichemical Industry

Entine is a central figure in agrichemical industry public relations efforts. The Genetic Literacy Project cross-promotes many industry-affiliated pro-GMO messengers and regularly attacks organizations and people who raise concerns about the health and environmental risks of GMOs and pesticides.

In 2014, GLP published a series of pro-GMO papers that were assigned to professors by a Monsanto executive.  The Monsanto connection was not disclosed in the papers but was revealed in emails obtained via state Freedom of Information Act request by U.S. Right to Know.

In one case, reported in the Boston Globe, the Monsanto executive suggested to Harvard Professor Calestous Juma that he write a paper about how GMOs are needed to feed Africa:

“Monsanto not only suggested the topic to professor Calestous Juma. It went so far as to provide a summary of what the paper could say and a suggested headline. The company then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers, according to e-mails obtained through a public records request.”

GLP published Professor Juma’s paper along with five other pro-GMO papers written by professors and assigned by Monsanto.

Entine told a Bloomberg reporter that he worked with the professors to edit their papers. “I had total control over the final product,” Entine said.

Entine was also linked to three pro-GMO journalists – Keith Kloor, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel and New York Times reporter Amy Harmon — whose names turned up in FOIA documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

Chemical Industry Defense Guy

Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists and others raising concerns.

Defending Neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees.

Entine:

  • Accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending Phthalates

In August of 2012, Entine defended vinyl plastic backpacks that were found to be exposing children to phthalates.

  • Entine criticized an NBC reporter for “shoddy journalism” for raising questions about the safety of phthalates (Forbes).

Defending Fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety.

For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Entine also:

  • Accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes).
  • Attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes).
  • Attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the European Union banned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine:

  • Attacked “a small but determined group of university researchers, activist NGOs and journalists” raising concerns about BPA (Forbes).
  • Tells women who can’t get pregnant not to blame it on plastics (Forbes).
  • Challenged scientists linking BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine:

  • Criticized Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes for pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power (Huffington Post).
  • Claims that nuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “Nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West” (Jon Entine).
  • Argued that Germany is “taking a gamble” by transitioning away from nuclear power (Ethical Corporation).

New Documents Uncover Monsanto’s Secret Role in Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy’s Academics Review Website

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Monday, February 1, 2016
For More Information Contact: Carey Gillam (913) 526-6190 and Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

New Documents Uncover Monsanto’s Secret Role in Illinois Professor Bruce Chassy’s Academics Review Website

The consumer group U.S. Right to Know today called for improved transparency and public disclosure of industry funding for and coordination with public university professors.

Email communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know through state Freedom of Information Act requests show extensive collaboration between agrichemical industry giant Monsanto Co. and former University of Illinois food science Professor Bruce Chassy on projects to promote GMO crops. The emails disclose that Monsanto, the leading developer of GMOs, was making financial contributions to the university for Chassy’s use over the same period that Monsanto or Monsanto-affiliated public relations operatives were providing Chassy pro-GMO content and/or editing for presentations, papers and videos.

The emails also reveal that Monsanto and a public relations operative helped Chassy set up a nonprofit group and website called Academics Review to criticize individuals, organizations and others who raise questions about the health or environmental risks of GMOs.

In a recent example, Chassy co-authored a series of articles that argue GMO labeling is a “disaster in waiting,” again with no disclosure of his collaboration with GMO developer Monsanto.

U.S. Right to Know calls on Congress to require disclosure of food and agrichemical industry payments to universities and professors, just as pharmaceutical and medical device companies are required to disclose payments to physicians and teaching hospitals under the Physician Payments Sunshine Act.

“Professors shouldn’t be able to lobby or do PR for agrichemical companies while representing themselves as independent, and they should have to disclose any money they receive from those companies,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “Congress should expand the Physician Payments Sunshine Act to require disclosure of payments from food and agrichemical companies to professors and universities.”

Other documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know show similar collaboration with other U.S. academics, including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. Folta received an unrestricted $25,000 grant from Monsanto and told Monsanto he would “write whatever you like.”

Read Carey Gillam’s article on the Bruce Chassy emails, “Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign.”

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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Veteran Food and Agriculture Reporter Joins U.S. Right to Know

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, January 5, 2016
For More Information Contact: Carey Gillam (913) 526-6190 or Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Veteran Food and Agriculture Reporter Joins U.S. Right to Know

Carey Gillam, a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering corporate America, with a special focus on corporate food and agricultural systems and policies, has joined U.S. Right to Know as Research Director. Gillam was previously a senior journalist with Reuters, one of the world’s largest news organizations.

In her role at U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), Gillam will coordinate research projects and reports, media partnerships and written communications that represent and advance USRTK’s mission to better inform the public about food industry practices and the industry’s often-hidden role in public policy.

“There is little else more important than the food we eat, and the health of the environment in which we live,” said Gillam. “But too often corporate interests control the narrative about the American food production system, and too often they downplay or ignore the risks while focusing solely on promoting what they see as the rewards. I want to help to level the playing field by illuminating information that people can use when making decisions about the food they consume.”

Gillam has been recognized as one of the top food and agriculture journalists in the United States, winning several awards for her coverage of the industry, and appearing as an expert commentator on radio and television broadcasts.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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Journalists Fail to Reveal Sources Funded by Coca-Cola: A Short Report

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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.

This is not just a public health scandal.  It is a journalistic one as well.

Journalists have quoted two of these professors at least 30 times in news articles, after the professors had received their Coca-Cola funding, but without mentioning that funding in their articles.  Many of the news outlets that published these articles are influential, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and National Public Radio.

It is a conflict of interest for professors working on obesity issues to accept funding from Coca-Cola. There is now substantial medical evidence that soda and the soda industry – and especially Coca-Cola and PepsiCo – are in part responsible for our nation’s obesity epidemic, and increase the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.

If a professor takes money from one of these soda companies, that is crucial context for their views on obesity, and journalists disserve their readers by failing to report it. Readers need to know who pays sources to evaluate the legitimacy and biases of these sources.

The net effect of quoting these professors without disclosing their Coca-Cola funding is to unfairly enhance their credibility, while undermining the credibility of public health and consumer advocates.

This short report reviews news coverage quoting two leaders of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network: Professors James O. Hill and Steven N. Blair.

James O. Hill was president of the Global Energy Balance Network.  He is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, and director of their Center for Human Nutrition.  According to Associated Press, Professor Hill wrote privately to a Coca-Cola executive, “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”

According to the New York Times, Coca-Cola “last year gave an ‘unrestricted monetary gift’ of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation … the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money ‘for the purposes of funding’ the Global Energy Balance Network.”

According to Associated Press, “Since 2010, Coke said it gave $550,000 to Hill that was unrelated to the [Global Energy Balance Network] group. A big part of that was research he and others were involved with, but the figure also covers travel expenses and fees for speaking engagements and other work.”

Steven N. Blair was vice president of the Global Energy Balance Network.  He is a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, in the departments of exercise science and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina.  According to the New York Times, when Professor Blair was announcing the Global Energy Balance Network, he made the following incorrect claim: “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on… And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

According to the New York Times, “Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.”

Following is a list of 30 news articles written after Professors Hill and Blair received funding from Coca-Cola (after January 1, 2011 for Hill, and January 1, 2009 for Blair) in which journalists failed to disclose that Professors Hill and Blair were funded by Coca-Cola.

  1. Los Angeles Times: Steps, Time, Distance: However Measured, Walking Can Reach Health Goals. By Mary MacVean, September 6, 2013.
  2. Los Angeles Times: ‘Fed Up’ Documentary Lays Blame for American Obesity on Food Industry. By Mary MacVean, May 9, 2014.
  3. Los Angeles Times: Obesity Rates in U.S. Appear to Be Finally Leveling Off. By Shari Roan, January 17, 2012.
  4. Los Angeles Times: Halloween’s Dilemma: Candy vs. Healthful Treats. By Karen Ravn, October 31, 2011.
  5. Los Angeles Times: Swimming with the Fittest? By Judy Foreman, July 19, 2010.
  6. Los Angeles Times: Stay Moving, Not Still. By Jeannine Stein, July 13, 2009.
  7. Los Angeles Times: Cities Try To Cut The Fat With Weight-Loss Programs. By Karen Ravn, January 31, 2011.
  8. USA Today: Retirement: The Payoffs of an Active Lifestyle. By Nanci Hellmich, April 16, 2015.
  9. USA Today: Holiday Weight Gain Isn’t Inevitable. By Nanci Hellmich, December 2, 2013.
  10. USA Today: Flex Your Metabolism and Melt Off Pounds. By Nanci Hellmich, August 19, 2013.
  11. USA Today: Adidas MiCoach, Nike+, Sensor Devices Get People Exercising. By Janice Lloyd, January 27, 2010.
  12. USA Today: Americans Fighting Fat, But Odds Stacked Against Them. By Nanci Hellmich, November 5, 2012.
  13. National Public Radio (NPR): How We Store Food at Home Could Be Linked to How Much We Eat. By Angus Chen, May 19, 2015.
  14. National Public Radio (NPR): Exercise Studies Find Good News For the Knees. By Allison Aubrey, September 5, 2009.
  15. National Public Radio (NPR): Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think. By Patti Neighmond, April 25, 2011.
  16. U.S. News and World Report: What Do Coloradans Know About Fitness That You Don’t? By Elisa Zied, October 8, 2013.
  17. U.S. News and World Report: How to Sit Less and Move More. By Elisa Zied, September 11, 2013.
  18. Boston Globe: Want to Get in Shape? Just Move! By Gareth Cook, January 22, 2012.
  19. Boston Globe: Healthy Steps. By Deborah Kotz, June 27, 2011.
  20. The Atlantic Monthly: How Obesity Became a Disease. By Harriet Brown, March 24, 2015.
  21. Forbes: The 6 Weight-Loss Tips That Science Actually Knows Work. By Alice G. Walton, September 4, 2013.
  22. Forbes: How A Model Figured Out Childhood Obesity. By Trevor Butterworth, August 22, 2013.
  23. Newsweek: Viagra the New Weight Loss Pill? By Trevor Butterworth, January 29, 2013.
  24. The Atlantic Monthly: The Perfected Self. By David H. Freedman, June 2012.
  25. New York Times: Tossing Out the Diet and Embracing the Fat. By Mandy Katz, July 15, 2009.
  26. Washington Post: Is It Possible To Be Fit and Fat? By Rachael Rattner and Live Science, December 16, 2013.
  27. Associated Press (AP): Study Says Even Being a Bit Overweight Is Risky. By Stephanie Nano, December 1, 2010.
  28. Denver Post: Combating Obesity on Several Fronts Helps Reverse Trend in Colorado. By Ally Marotti, August 7, 2013.
  29. Charleston Post and Courier: Study Links Obesity to Work. By David Slade, May 28, 2011.
  30. Peoria Journal-Star: Sedentary Behavior Is a Health Risk That Needs to Be Addressed at All Ages. By Steve Tarter, July 24, 2015.

Why did so many reporters and news outlets fail to disclose the conflicts of interest of these two prominent professors?

How can we prevent similar journalistic failures in the future? One answer is clear: reporters and editors must be on their guard for corporate-funded professors who pose as issue experts but are really acting as mouthpieces for food companies like Coca-Cola.

Readers, too, should be aware that some influential news outlets do not always disclose their sources’ conflicts of interest, which makes their coverage of food and agriculture issues less fair and credible.  It gives readers a legitimate reason to be skeptical of some mainstream media coverage of food and agriculture issues because of pro-industry biases sometimes contained in it.

In November, we wrote a similar report about how journalists failed to disclose sources’ ties to the agrichemical giant Monsanto. Both of these reports highlight the same problem: academics who appear in the media as independent sources when they are actually taking money from companies to promote particular views. Journalists have a responsibility to know and to reveal if their sources are working on behalf of industry.