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.

Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding from Monsanto: A Short Report

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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.

Our review found 27 articles quoting (or authored by) university professors after they received Monsanto funding, but without disclosing that funding.

This is a collapse of journalistic standards. When reporters quote sources about food issues such as GMOs or organic food, readers deserve to know if the sources have been funded by Monsanto or have other conflicts of interest.

The principal effect of failing to reveal these conflicts of interest is to unfairly enhance the credibility of Monsanto-funded academics, and their support of GMOs and criticism of organic food, while detracting from the credibility of consumer advocates.

Our review found that many top media outlets quoted either University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta or University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy without disclosing that the professors received funding from Monsanto. According to documents published by the New York Times, Professor Folta received Monsanto funding in August 2014, and Professor Chassy in October 2011, if not before.

Many of these journalistic failures occurred at influential news outlets: newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune; science publications such as Nature, Science Insider and Discover; magazines such as the New Yorker, Wired and The Atlantic; as well as broadcast outlets like ABC and NPR.

Following is a list of news articles quoting (or authored by) Professors Folta and Chassy — after they received their Monsanto funding – but failing to disclose that they had received the Monsanto funding.

  1. New York Times: Taking on the Food Industry, One Blog Post at a Time. By Courtney Rubin, March 13, 2015. (Also ran in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.)
  2. New York Times: Foes of Modified Corn Find Support in a Study. By Andrew Pollack, September 19, 2012.
  3. Washington Post: Kraft Mac & Cheese Just Got Duller. You Can Thank (Or Blame) ‘The Food Babe.’ By Michael E. Miller, April 21, 2015. (Also ran in the Chicago Tribune.)
  4. Washington Post: Proof He’s the Science Guy: Bill Nye Is Changing His Mind About GMOs. By Puneet Kollipara, March 3, 2015.
  5. Nature: GM-Crop Opponents Expand Probe Into Ties Between Scientists and Industry. By Keith Kloor, August 6, 2015.
  6. NPR: Is The Food Babe A Fearmonger? Scientists Are Speaking Out. By Maria Godoy, February 10, 2015.
  7. New Yorker: The Operator. By Michael Specter, February 4, 2013.
  8. The Atlantic: The Food Babe: Enemy of Chemicals. By James Hamblin, February 11, 2015.
  9. Wired: Anti-GMO Activist Seeks to Expose Scientists Emails with Big Ag. By Alan Levinovitz, February 23, 2015.
  10. ABC News: Scientists Developing Hypo-Allergenic Apples. By Gillian Mohney, March 22, 2013.
  11. Science Insider: Agricultural Researchers Rattled by Demands for Documents from Group Opposed to GM Foods. By Keith Kloor, February 11, 2015.
  12. Columbia Journalism Review: Why Scientists Often Hate Records Requests. By Anna Clark, February 25, 2015.
  13. Discover: Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist. By Keith Kloor, November 10, 2014.
  14. Discover: How to Balance Transparency with Academic Freedom? By Keith Kloor, February 27, 2015.
  15. Discover: Anti-GMO Group Seeks Emails from University Scientists. By Keith Kloor, February 11, 2015.
  16. Forbes: Zombie Retracted Séralini GMO Maize Rat Study Republished To Hostile Scientist Reactions. By Jon Entine, June 24, 2014.
  17. Forbes: Did The New Yorker Botch Puff Piece On Frog Scientist Tyrone Hayes, Turning Rogue into Beleaguered Hero? By Jon Entine, March 10, 2014.
  18. Forbes: You Can Put Lipstick On A Pig (Study), But It Still Stinks. By Bruce M. Chassy and Henry I. Miller, July 17, 2013.
  19. Forbes: Anti-GMO Scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini, Activist Jeffrey Smith Withdraw from Food Biotech Debate. By Jon Entine, May 29, 2013.
  20. Forbes: Malpractice On Dr. Oz: Pop Health Expert Hosts Anti-GM Food Rant; Scientists Push Back. By Jon Entine, October 19, 2012.
  21. Forbes: Scientists Smell a Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study. By Henry I. Miller and Bruce Chassy, September 25, 2012.
  22. Forbes: The Science of Things That Aren’t So. By Bruce Chassy and Henry I. Miller, February 22, 2012.
  23. Des Moines Register: Consumers Are Misled About Organic Safety. By John Block, October 10, 2014.
  24. Gainesville Sun: Genetically Modified Foods Face Hurdles. By Jeff Schweers, June 29, 2014.
  25. Peoria Journal Star: Hybrid Crops That Used to Offer Resistance to Rootworm No Match for Mother Nature. By Steve Tarter, June 21, 2014.
  26. Gawker: The “Food Babe” Blogger Is Full of Shit. By Yvette d’Entremont, April 6, 2015.
  27. Louis Post-Dispatch: California Labeling Fight May Raise Food Prices for All of Us. By David Nicklaus, August 19, 2012.

This is merely one example of two professors who were not identified as received funding from Monsanto, and yet these two professors received major traction in the media as “independent” experts on GMOs and organics. The only reason the professors admitted to receiving Monsanto funding was due to emails uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests filed by U.S. Right to Know, a consumer group.

How often does it happen that journalists present other academics funded by food or agrichemical companies as “independent” sources and without disclosing their corporate funding?

One remedy for this problem is that when journalists write about food, that they carefully ask their sources whether they have any conflicts of interest, where they get their funding from, and whether they receive any funding from food or agrichemical companies like Monsanto, or their PR front groups.

That, however, may not be enough. Professor Kevin Folta received Monsanto funding, yet repeatedly denied ties to or funding from Monsanto. Reporters – and readers — should be aware that such deceit by Monsanto-funded academics has recently occurred, and be on their guard against it.

USDA Whistleblower Complaint Raises Question: What Else Is USDA Hiding on Pesticides?

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, October 28, 2015
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

USDA Whistleblower Complaint Raises Question: What Else Is USDA Hiding on Pesticides?

Today, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed a whistleblower complaint on behalf of U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Jonathan Lundgren, who may have been harassed and suspended for research on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on monarch butterflies.

“The suspension of Dr. Lundgren raises questions about whether USDA is suppressing other research adverse to the interests of the agrichemical industry.  Is this an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern?” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer group. “What else is USDA hiding about the health and environmental impacts of pesticides?”

On March 30, 2015, U.S. Right to Know sent letters to the chairs and ranking members of the U.S. Senate and House Agriculture Committees, and to the USDA Inspector General, requesting an investigation of a possible cover up for Monsanto, and whether USDA scientists are being harassed when their work runs counter to the agrichemical industry’s interests. We received no responses.

The letters were in reaction to a March 27 Reuters article that, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, “some scientists working for the federal government are finding their research restricted or censored when it conflicts with agribusiness industry interests….at least 10 USDA scientists have been investigated or faced other consequences arising from research that called into question the safety of certain agricultural chemicals….Research into glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, and neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to honey bee and monarch butterfly endangerment, face particular scrutiny…”

U.S. Right to Know is a new nonprofit organization that exposes what food companies don’t want us to know. For more information, please see our website at usrtk.org.

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FTC Declines to Act Against Deceptive “Diet” Soda Ads

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[Update: See our fact sheet with the most recent science on aspartame’s links to weight gain]

News Release
For Immediate Release: Wednesday, October 14, 2015
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Citing competing priorities and resource allocation, the Federal Trade Commission has declined a request from consumer advocacy group U.S. Right to Know to stop Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. from using the term “diet” in advertising, branding and labeling of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, because it appears to be deceptive, false and misleading.

Numerous scientific studies and literature reviews suggest that artificial sweeteners do not assist in weight loss and may cause weight gain.  Federal law prohibits false advertising, branding and labeling of food products, and FDA regulations permit the use of the term “diet” for soft drink brands or labels only when it is not false or misleading.

“It’s regrettable that the FTC won’t act to halt the deceptions of the ‘diet’ soda industry,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know “Ample scientific evidence links artificial sweeteners to weight gain, not weight loss.”

“I do believe that ‘diet’ soda will go down in U.S. history as one of the greatest consumer frauds ever.”

“I do believe that ‘diet’ soda will go down in U.S. history as one of the greatest consumer frauds ever,” Ruskin said.

Examples of scientific studies suggesting links between artificial sweeteners and weight gain include:

  • A 2010 Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine review of the literature on artificial sweeteners concludes that, “research studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain.”
  • A 2013 Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism review article finds “accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of these sugar substitutes may also be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” and that “frequent consumption of high-intensity sweeteners may have the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.”
  • A 2015 study of older adults in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found “In a striking dose-response relationship,” that “increasing DSI [diet soda intake] was associated with escalating abdominal obesity…”
  • A 2014 study published in Nature found that “consumption of commonly used NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] formulations drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota….our results link NAS consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities….Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.”

Texts of the U.S. Right to Know requests to FTC and FDA are available at:
FTC: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FTC-artificial-sweetener-letter.pdf
FDA: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FDA-artificial-sweetener-petition.pdf

Text of the FTC and FDA’s responses to our requests are available at:
FTC: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FTC-response-diet-soda.pdf
FDA: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FDA-response-diet-soda.pdf

U.S. Right to Know is a new nonprofit food organization that exposes what food companies don’t want us to know. For more information, please see our website at usrtk.org.

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A Short Report on Journalists Mentioned in our FOIA Requests

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Also see: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a conflict of interest?  
Washington Post Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto 

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

Following her admission, I thought it might be useful to report on journalists – including Haspel — mentioned in the documents we have received from state public records requests.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation of the food and agrichemical industries, their PR firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.

So far, three reporters come up in interesting ways: Amy Harmon, Keith Kloor and Tamar Haspel. These reporters appear in the context of Jon Entine, who is perhaps the leading PR operative working to promote the views of the agrichemical industry, and its pesticides and GMOs.

Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, which, along with the PR firm Ketchum’s GMO Answers, are the agrichemical industry’s two most visible front groups. Entine is also founder and president of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients have included the agrichemical giant Monsanto.

Amy Harmon

Amy Harmon is a reporter for the New York Times.  She was part of a Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and in 2008 she won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting.

On September 23, 2013 at 7:44pm, Jon Entine emailed Renee Kester: “FYI, I think I’ve talked Amy Harmon into doing a Hawaii Hawaii [sic] story. . .  and I gave her your and Kirby’s email information, so she may call at some point if she indeed pursues this.” Kirby Kester is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, an agrichemical industry front group.

On January 4, 2014, the New York Times published a front-page article by Amy Harmon, titled “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.” The story is datelined from Kona, Hawaii.

In 2014, Harmon won second place for the Society of Environmental Journalists “Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market” for “The Facts About GMOs,” a series that included the article “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.”

On September 30th, Harmon is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote GMOs. The group is running a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Slate and other outlets.  Kloor has written many pro-GMO articles that have been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

Kloor is mentioned in two places in the FOIA documents.

In one email, Jon Entine refers to Keith Kloor as a “very good friend of mine”.

In another email, on October 18, 2014, Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University, emails Adrianne Massey of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), along with several others, to forward an alert from Lorraine Thelian, vice chairman of the PR firm Ketchum that “the hacker community Anonymous is planning a series of attacks on biotechnology and food industry websites…Trade association and corporate websites of CBI [Council for Biotechnology Information] members are being targeted in this planned attack.”  Dr. Prakash writes, “Adrianne I have copied Kevin Folta, Karl von Mogel, David Tribe and Keith Kloor here as well.”

Dr. Prakash cc’d the email to Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Jon Entine, Bruce Chassy (agrichemical industry advocate) Val Giddings (former VP of BIO), Henry Miller (agrichemical industry advocate), Drew Kershen (agrichemical industry advocate), Klaus Ammann, Piet van der Meer, Martina Newell-McGloughlin (agrichemical industry advocate), Karl Haro von Mogel (member of the board of directors of Biology Fortified, a pro-GMO website), Kevin Folta (agrichemical industry advocate), Keith Kloor and David Tribe (agrichemical industry advocate).

Keith Kloor was the only journalist who received this email.

The email implies that Kloor works closely with the agrichemical industry’s prominent advocates.

Kloor has written three articles that were critical of U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests, in Science Insider, Discover and Nature.

On March 23rd, 2015, Kloor gave a talk for the Cornell Alliance for Science, which is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Tamar Haspel

Tamar Haspel is a columnist at the Washington Post.  She has written many columns for the Post defending or praising GMOs that have later been featured by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2015, Haspel won the James Beard Foundation Award for her Post columns.

In June 2014, Haspel spoke to a pro-industry conference about “How can scientists best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public?”  The conference was coordinated by Jon Entine and Cami Ryan, who is currently social sciences lead for Monsanto.  The conference was led by two agrichemical industry front groups, the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, along with the University of Florida, which receives major funding from agrichemical companies, as noted in a September 6 article in the New York Times.

Haspel also moderated a panel organized by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which “provides long-term economic and societal benefits to North Carolina through support of biotechnology research, business, education and strategic policy statewide.”

In a September 23 chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Ms. Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” Later that day, I asked Ms. Haspel on Twitter how much money she had received from the agrichemical industry and its front groups.  She replied, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!

Is it appropriate for a Washington Post columnist to write glowing columns about GMOs while appearing at such pro-industry conferences?  Is it a conflict of interest for Haspel to accept money from agrichemical company interests that she covers as part of her beat as a Post food columnist?  How much money has Haspel received from agrichemical industry interests?

Some journalists have criticized journalists for “buckraking” on speakers’ circuits. For example, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said, “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

Haspel wrote in the Washington Post that she will only speak at events where “if for-profit companies are involved in the event (which they often are), they can’t be the only voice.  So, I will speak at a conference co-sponsored by, say, Monsanto and the USDA and NC State University, but not an event sponsored by Monsanto alone.”  However, at the June 2014, conference at which Haspel spoke, no consumer advocates were slated to speak, only pro-industry advocates.

On October 16, Haspel is scheduled to speak to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO group that is hosting a petition against U.S. Right to Know’s FOIA requests.

Haspel has been critical of the U.S. Right to Know FOIA requests.  On August 17, on Twitter, she wrote: “The money/time/brainpower wasted on @garyruskin’s mean-spirited, self-interested attack on @kevinfolta! Can we move on to something useful?” Others did not agree with her news judgment.  On September 6th, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton wrote an article largely based on our FOIA requests – especially of University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta – which ran on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. The article revealed how Folta, who repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto, in fact had received an undisclosed $25,000 grant, as well as writing assignments from the company, and worked closely with it and its PR firm Ketchum, which ghostwrote text for him and organized media and lobbying meetings for him.

U.S. Right to Know is a consumer advocacy group.  We try to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.  We believe it is useful for the public to see how the food and agrichemical companies do their public relations work.  That is one way we can help consumers to assess the claims and information they receive from the companies involved in our food production, their PR firms and operatives, and the journalists who work with them.

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.” (Also see our Feb. 2015 letter to Professor Folta about our FOIA requests.)

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.

See our investigations page for up-to-date details on our findings

News articles about our investigation

2017

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Defends Professor’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalists

USRTK press release: BMJ reveals secret industry funding of reporting, based on USRTK documents  

Huffington Post: Moms Exposed to Monsanto Weed Killer Means Bad Outcomes for Babies

Huffington Post: USDA Drops Plans to Test for Monsanto Weed Killer in Food 

USRTK fact sheet: Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide 

USRTK: MDL Monsanto Glyphosate Cancer Case Key Documents and Analysis 

Huffington Post: Monsanto Weed Killer Deserves Deeper Scrutiny as Scientific Manipulation Revealed

The Ecologist: ‘Pro Science’ GMO, Chemical Pushers Funded by Climate Science Deniers

USRTK: Public Interests Groups to USA Today: Ditch Columns by Corporate Front Group ACSH

USRTK: Julie Kelly Cooks Up Propaganda for the Agrichemical Industry 

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Mind Meld; Spin Machine in High Gear 

USRTK: Questions about Monsanto, EPA Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits

USRTK: Monsanto and EPA Want to Keep Talks Secret on Glyphosate Cancer Review 

2016

The Hill: Serious Scrutiny Needed a EPA Seeks Input on Cancer Ties to Monsanto Herbicide 

USRTK: New Research: GMO Bt Crops Failing

USRTK: Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry 

USRTK: New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions 

USRTK: FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate in Food 

Huffington Post: More Bad News for Honey as US Seeks to Get Handle on Glyphosate Residues in Food

Huffington Post: IARC Scientists Defend Glyphosate Cancer Link; Surprised by Industry Assault 

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists 

USRTK: Top Scientists at CDC Complain of Corporate Influence, Unethical Practices

Huffington Post: EPA Bows to Chemical Industry Pressure in Glyphosate Review

USRTK: Upcoming EPA Meetings On Glyphosate Drawing Scrutiny

USRTK: FDA Tests Confirm Oatmeal, Baby Food Contain Monsanto Weedkiller 

Huffington Post: FDA Finds Monsanto’s Weed Killer in U.S. Honey 

Davis Enterprise: Watchdog Group Sues UCD Over Public Records Request

Sacramento News & Review: Watchdog Group Alleges that Five UCD Professors Were Paid to Shill for GMOs 

Sacramento Bee: Watchdog Group Sues to Force UC Davis to Turn Over Public Records 

Politico: UC Davis Sued as Part of Industry Influence Probe 

The Hill: What is Going On at the CDC? Health Agency Needs Scrutiny

Huffington Post: More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside US Centers for Disease Control 

Huffington Post: CDC Official Exits After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light 

Huffington Post: Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency

US RTK: ILSI Wields Stealthy Influence for the Food and Agrichemical Industries

Huffington Post: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food 

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

Die Zeit: Glyphosat: Möglicher Interessenskonflikt bei Pflanzenschutzmittel-Bewertung

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

ARD: Experten werfen Fachgremium Wirtschaftsnähe vor

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  

The Hill: How Freedom Falls: Broken FOIA Far From Healing as US Agencies Cheat Public

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.

Is Coke Illegally Claiming “Diet” Soda is a Treatment for Obesity?

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, July 1, 2015                          
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Is Coke Illegally Claiming “Diet” Soda is a Treatment for Obesity?

U.S. Right to Know, a consumer advocacy group, sent a letter today to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking it to stop the Coca-Cola Company from making apparently illegal claims that its artificially sweetened sodas prevent, mitigate or treat obesity.

The Coca-Cola Company has made apparently illegal “disease claims” on at least eight occasions.  Federal law and rules allow food companies to make science-based “health claims” that link a product to reduced risk of a disease, but prohibit them from making “disease claims,” or claims to “diagnose, mitigate, treat, cure, or prevent a specific disease…” In this case, there is growing scientific evidence tying artificial sweeteners to weight gain, not weight loss.

“Coke is gulling consumers into believing that artificially sweetened soda is a treatment for obesity,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know. “Coke is wrong on the facts and the FDA should stop them if they are on the wrong side of the law.”  Following are three examples of how the Coca-Cola Company claims its artificially sweetened sodas prevent, mitigate or treat obesity:

  • In the Coca-Cola Company’s “Position on Obesity,” the company notes that it “announced four global commitments to bring people together to help find workable solutions to address obesity,” and that its lead “commitment” was to “Offer low- or no-calorie beverage options in every market.”

Text of today’s letter to FDA is available at: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/cokeobesity.pdf.

The Coca-Cola Company’s “disease claims” for its artificially sweetened sodas are apparently illegal, but they are also probably untrue.  Numerous scientific studies and literature reviews suggest that artificial sweeteners likely do not assist in weight loss and may cause weight gain.

Examples of scientific studies suggesting links between artificial sweeteners and weight gain include:

  • A 2013 Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism review article finds “accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumers of these sugar substitutes may also be at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease,” and that “frequent consumption of high-intensity sweeteners may have the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements.”
  • A 2014 study published in Nature found that “consumption of commonly used NAS [non-caloric artificial sweetener] formulations drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota….our results link NAS consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities….Our findings suggest that NAS may have directly contributed to enhancing the exact epidemic that they themselves were intended to fight.”

“Coke’s claims that its artificially sweetened sodas treat obesity are probably false,” Ruskin said.

The Coca-Cola Company manufactures many artificially sweetened sodas, including Diet Coke, Coca-Cola Zero, Coca-Cola Cherry Zero, Coca-Cola Vanilla Zero, Diet Barq’s Beer, Fanta Orange Zero, Mello Yello Zero, Sprite Zero, Fresca, Pibb Zero, Seagram’s Diet Ginger Ale and Tab.

On April 9, U.S. Right to Know asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to stop Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. from using the term “diet” in advertising, branding and labeling of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, because it appears to be deceptive, false and misleading.

Texts of the April 9 U.S. Right to Know requests to FTC and FDA are available at:
FTC: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FTC-artificial-sweetener-letter.pdf
FDA: http://usrtk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FDA-artificial-sweetener-petition.pdf

U.S. Right to Know is a new nonprofit food organization that investigates and reports on what food companies don’t want us to know. For more information, please see our website at usrtk.org.

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Biotech Spinmasters Propose Name Changes to Counteract Awful PR

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Wednesday, June 17, 2015
For More Informtion Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Biotech Spinmasters Propose Name Changes to Counteract Awful PR

Following in the footsteps of Monsanto’s proposed name change, today the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) announced that it is renaming itself the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. BIO is the principal trade association for the biotechnology industry.

Documents released by Syngenta on June 8 include a letter from Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant to Syngenta, suggesting as a part of a Monsanto-Syngenta corporate merger that, “We would also propose a new name for the combined company to reflect its unique global nature.”

“These name changes are a sign of PR despair,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. “Monsanto’s name is radioactive, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s name isn’t much better.”

“Monsanto and the some parts of the biotech industry face consumer distrust and a political backlash,” Ruskin said. “That backlash is for environmental and health reasons, and it is foolish to think that name changes will bail out their bad PR.”

In a 2014 Harris Poll gauging the reputations of major corporations, Monsanto’s “reputation quotient” ranked 58 out of 60 companies. In other words, it was the third most hated company measured.

BIO has been a key industry advocate for genetically engineered foods, and against mandatory labeling of them. According to a 2013 New York Times poll, 93% of Americans support labeling of genetically engineered food.

U.S. Right to Know is a new nonprofit food organization that investigates and reports on what food companies don’t want us to know. In January, U.S. Right to Know released a report, titled Seedy Business, on the agrichemical and food industries’ PR campaign to defend GMOs. For more information about U.S. Right to Know, please see our website at usrtk.org.

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Monsanto Proposes to Change Its Name, To Escape Its PR Woes

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News Release

For Immediate Release:  Monday, June 8, 2015
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (415) 944-7350

Monsanto Proposes to Change Its Name, To Escape Its PR Woes

Documents released today by Syngenta include a letter from Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant to Syngenta, suggesting as a part of a corporate merger that, “We would also propose a new name for the combined company to reflect its unique global nature.”

“Monsanto wants to escape its ugly history by ditching its name,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a consumer group. “This shows how desperate Monsanto is to escape criticism: of its products, which raise environmental and health concerns, as well as concerns about corporate control of agriculture and our food system.”

In a 2014 Harris Poll gauging the reputations of major corporations, Monsanto’s “reputation quotient” ranked 58 out of 60 companies. In other words, it was the third most hated company measured.

“Monsanto is much like Philip Morris when it changed its name to Altria,” Ruskin said. “Monsanto wants us to forget about its old scandals like PCBs and Agent Orange, as well as the serious questions swirling around Roundup and GMOs.”

U.S. Right to Know is a new nonprofit food organization that investigates and reports on what food companies don’t want us to know. In January, U.S. Right to Know released a report, titled Seedy Business, on the agrichemical and food industries’ PR campaign to defend GMOs. For more information about U.S. Right to Know, please see our website at usrtk.org.

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