Our Investigation of Big Food and its Front Groups

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Update: This blog has been updated to include a running list of news stories and commentary generated by our ongoing investigation.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation into the collusion betwUSRTK_FOIArequestsAgroChemical_1een Big Food, its front groups, and university faculty and staff to deliver industry PR to the public. That investigation is ongoing.  Thus far, it has been fruitful, as today’s New York Times article shows.

The Times article links to emails obtained via state Freedom of Information Act requests filed by U.S. Right to Know. These emails reveal how Monsanto and its partners use so-called “independent” third-party scientists and professors to deliver their PR messaging. Since the companies themselves are not credible messengers, they use these scientists and professors as sock-puppets to shape the media narrative on food issues, particularly GMOs.

This is a key part of Big Food’s PR strategy.  The agrichemical and food industries are spending vast sums of money to convince the public that their food, crops, GMOs, additives and pesticides are safe, desirable and healthy.

U.S. Right to Know has filed state Freedom of Information Acts requests to try to obtain the emails and documents of 43 public university faculty and staff, to learn more about this public relations effort.  Thus far, we have received documents in nine of these requests.  So, most of the documents are likely still to come.  Some may arrive next week, others may perhaps take a year or even more to arrive.

We have requested records from scientists, economists, law professors, extension specialists and communicators.  All work in public institutions, funded by the taxpayers.  We believe the public deserves to know more about the flow of money and level of coordination between public university scientists and other academics, and the agrichemical and food companies whose interests they promote.

We have a right to know what’s in our food, and how companies attempt to influence our views about it. Yet some find transparency so threatening that they equate consumer campaigns with vile dictatorships – as in a recent Facebook post that featured my picture alongside that of Stalin and Hitler. Others have compared our work to “terrorism” and us to “terrorists.”

Transparency – and investigative reporting about our food – is the core of what we do here are U.S. Right to Know.

We believe in the words of James Madison, who wrote: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Finally, a brief word about University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta.  The most important findings in today’s New York Times article are about the PR efforts of Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.  But it is worth pointing out that Professor Folta repeatedly denied – falsely – having ties to Monsanto or having accepted funds from Monsanto.  For example, Professor Folta has stated:

Professor Folta has also falsely claimed he never used the text written for him by the PR firm Ketchum.

At best, these statements by Professor Folta are misleading, and some of them are untruthful. Yet, as the emails released today reveal, Folta has been in close contact with Monsanto and the industry’s PR firm Ketchum, recently received a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto, and even wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.”

Professor Folta aside, it is also important to note that our drive for transparency is not about one or a few people. This is about the extent to which corporations such as Monsanto and their front groups are using our public universities and the scientists and academics who work there as tools to promote their agendas and their profits.

Stay tuned for more details about our investigation…

News articles about our investigation

2016 

Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk

Die Ziet: Glyphosat: Möglicher Interessenskonflikt bei Pflanzenschutzmittel-Bewertung

Horticulture Week: Questions Raised Over Independence of Panel that Found Glyphosate Safe 

US RTK: Conflicts of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

STAT News: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper

Inverse: Disney Parks Food Study Shows the Problems with Corporate Science, Not Hot Dogs

Marion Nestle: The strange story of my accepted but yet-to-be published commentary on Disney-funded study gets stranger

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding

US RTK: Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington

Interview with Carey Gillam: Peeling Back the Curtain on Monsanto

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Washington Post’s Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto – Again

2015 

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby

BuzzFeed: Seed Money: True Confessions of a GMO Promoter

Alternet: How Monsanto Solicited Academics to Bolster Their Pro-GMO Propaganda

Harvard Crimson: Prof Failed To Disclose Connection to Company in Paper

Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link

The Intercept: Jeb Bush Campaign Manager Helped Big Pharma Beat Back Anti-Meth Lab Legislation

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When Is It a Conflict of Interest?

Commentary about freedom of information and disclosure  

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money – If You Can 

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Further reading

Seedy Business: What Big Food Is Hiding With Its Slick PR Campaign on GMOs

An Open Letter to Professor Kevin Folta on FOIA Requests

Background on Ketchum, the PR firm that runs GMO Answers

GMO Answers is a Marketing and PR Website for GMO Companies

Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications Are Shaping the Story of Food

USRTK Short Report: Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding From Monsanto

Background on Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger 

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.