Study: IFIC misleads the public about diet, health, ultra-processed food

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Sunday, October 30, 2022

For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin, gary@usrtk.org, +1 415 944 7350; Daniel Zaltz, dzaltz1@jhu.edu, +1 914 843 6738; Connie Hoe, conniehoe@jhu.edu, +49 6221 565344

The International Food Information Council “promotes food and beverage company interests and undermines the accurate dissemination of scientific evidence related to diet and health,” according to a study published yesterday in the journal Globalization and Health. IFIC is widely cited in the media as a source on consumer sentiment and matters related to food and health.

The study was produced by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health group. U.S. Right to Know obtained nearly 30,000 pages of documents for the study through federal and state public records requests.

The study found that IFIC often engages in consumer “preference shaping” which “includes the use of key opinion leaders and multimedia communications to promote narratives sympathetic to business interests.” The group also is involved in “manufacturing doubt,” which is using “specific evidence and rhetoric to create doubt about negative health impacts of specific foods or food groups.”

“IFIC conducts product defense and science denial for the ultra-processed food industry,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know, and one of the co-authors of the study. “It works to protect food industry profits, not your health.”

The study concludes that “IFIC uses media outlets to preemptively counter information about the negative health impacts of added sugars and ultra-processed foods…IFIC and its affiliates disseminate a narrow subset of nutrition and health information consistent with corporate interests and in opposition to public health policies associated with improved population health.”

“Based on our review of scientific evidence presented to large media outlets by academic researchers on behalf of IFIC, there is reason to consider IFIC a purveyor of nutrition-based misinformation,” the study says.

IFIC often appears as a source in the media. For example, during the last year, IFIC has been cited in the New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, Huff Post, Martha Stewart Living, SHAPE, and Men’s Health, among others.

As a part of its media outreach, IFIC produces consumer surveys. The study reports that IFIC, its consumer surveys and IFIC-supported academic researchers “consistently focus on individual or ‘person-level’ changes to diet and health. This individualistic narrative is consistent with those promoted by other health harming industries such as the tobacco and alcohol industries…”

IFIC was established to work closely with the food industry front group International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a group founded by former Coca-Cola senior vice president Alex Malaspina. Malaspina has described how the groups work together: “IFIC is kind of a sister entity to ILSI. ILSI generates the scientific facts and IFIC communicates them to the media and public.”

Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer unit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), described IFIC as an “industry partner” in its efforts to defend the reputation of Roundup weedkiller from cancer concerns.

IFIC is based in Washington, DC, and sometimes works closely with federal agencies. IFIC states that its current partners include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; and four programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“It is not the proper role of federal agencies like the CDC and FDA to legitimize corporate front groups, and especially not ones that promote products that detract from our health,” Ruskin said.

Other IFIC partners include the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM); World Health Organization (WHO); and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

IFIC also has “public liaisons” — federal agency staff who have “agreed to represent their organization and serve as advisors and subject-matter experts.” At present, IFIC has “public liaisons” from three federal agencies: USDA, CDC and FDA.

The study in Globalization and Health is titled “How independent is the International Food Information Council from the food and beverage industry? A content analysis of internal industry documents.”

The study was co-authored by Daniel Zaltz, doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH); Lauren Bisi, research associate at JHSPH; Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know; and Connie H. Hoe, assistant professor at JHSPH.

Earlier this year, USRTK’s Gary Ruskin co-authored another study about IFIC, also published in Globalization and Health, titled “Confronting potential food industry ‘front groups’: case study of the international food information Council’s nutrition communications using the UCSF food industry documents archive.” It concluded that “IFIC’s promotion of evidence for the food industry should be interpreted as marketing strategy for those funders.”

U.S. Right to Know’s fact sheet about IFIC is available here.

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on promoting transparency for public health. For more information about U.S. Right to Know, see our academic papers at https://usrtk.org/academic-work/. For more general information, see usrtk.org.

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