How Tamar Haspel Misleads Readers of the Washington Post

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Tamar Haspel is a freelance journalist who has been writing monthly food columns for the Washington Post since October 2013. Haspel’s columns frequently promote and defend agrichemical industry products, while she also receives payments to speak at industry-aligned events, and sometimes from industry groups – a practice known as “buckraking” that raises questions about objectivity.

A review of Haspel’s Washington Post columns turns up further concerns: in multiple instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry connections of her sources, relied on industry-slanted studies, cherry-picked facts to back up industry positions or cited industry propaganda uncritically. See source review and other examples described below. Haspel has not yet responded to inquiries for this article.

Buckraking on the food beat: a conflict of interest?

In a 2015 online chat hosted by the Washington Post, answering a question about whether she receives money from industry sources, Haspel wrote that, “I speak and moderate panels and debates often, and it’s work I’m paid for.” She discloses her speaking engagements on her personal website, but does not disclose which companies or trade groups fund her or what amounts they give.

When asked how much money she has taken from the agrichemical industry and its front groups, Haspel tweeted, “Since any group believing biotech has something to offer is a ‘front group,’ plenty!”

According to the Washington Post Standards and Ethics, reporters cannot accept gifts, free trips, preferential treatment or free admissions from news sources, and “should make every effort to remain in the audience, to stay off the stage, to report the news, not to make the news.” These rules do not apply to freelancers however, and the paper leaves it up to editors to decide.

Haspel describes her criteria for accepting paid speaking engagements on her personal website: that the events are constructive debates about food issues involving more voices than for-profit companies. Not all events on her roster appear to fit that criteria (see the “biotech literacy” industry-funded message training events described below). Haspel’s editor Joe Yonan has said he is comfortable with Haspel’s approach to paid speaking engagements and finds it a “reasonable balance.” 

More comments from Haspel and Yonan are reported here, “Buckraking on the Food Beat: When is it a Conflict of Interest?” by Stacy Malkan (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2015). See also, “A short report on three journalists mentioned in our FOIA requests,” by Gary Ruskin (U.S. Right to Know, 2015). For perspectives from journalists and editors on buckraking, see Ken Silverstein’s reporting (Harper’s, 2008).

Taking up the GMO beat

Haspel began writing about genetically engineered foods in March 2013 in the Huffington Post (“Go Frankenfish! Why We Need GM Salmon”). Her writings about other food-related topics began appearing in the Washington Post and HuffPo in 2011 and elsewhere since the mid 1990s. Haspel’s final series of articles for Huffington Post continued on the topic of agrichemical industry products, with blogs debunking studies about possible risks of glyphosate and GMO animal feed, an argument against GMO labeling campaigns and a puff piece about the agrichemical industry’s marketing website, GMO Answers.

GMOAnswers.org was part of a multi-million-dollar public relations initiative the agrichemical industry announced in the spring of 2013 to combat consumer concerns about genetically engineered foods in the wake of campaigns to label GMOs.

HuffPo July 2013: An example of how Haspel has promoted industry sources uncritically. More examples below. 

WaPo Unearthed column: digging for industry perspectives

Haspel launched her monthly “Unearthed” food column in the Washington Post in October 2013  (“Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true”) with a promise to “dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.” She advised readers to figure out “whom you can trust” in the GMO debate and identified several groups that did not pass her impartiality test (the Union of Concerned Scientists among them).

Haspel’s November 2013 column (“GMO common ground: Where supporters and opponents agree”) provided a broad range of perspectives from public interest as well as industry sources; however, in subsequent columns, Haspel seldom quotes public interest groups and devotes far less space to public health experts and data sources than she does to industry-connected sources or experts in risk analysis or “risk perception” who tend to downplay public health and safety concerns, and echo industry views. In several instances, Haspel failed to disclose or fully describe industry ties to sources.

Industry-sourced ‘food movement’ column

An example that illustrates some of these problems is Haspel’s January 2016 column (“The surprising truth about the food movement”), in which she argues that people who care about genetic engineering or other aspects of food production – the “food movement” – are a marginal part of the population. She included no interviews with consumer, health, environmental or justice groups that consider themselves part of the food movement.

Haspel sourced the column with two industry-funded spin groups, the International Food Information Council and Ketchum, the public relations firm that runs GMO Answers. While she described Ketchum as a PR firm that “works extensively with the food industry,” Haspel did not disclose that Ketchum was hired by the agrichemical industry to change consumer views of GMO foods (nor did she mention Ketchum’s scandalous history of flacking for Russia and conducting espionage against environmental groups).

A third source for her column was a two-year old phone survey conducted by William Hallman, a public perception analyst from Rutgers who reported that most people don’t care about GMO labeling. (A year earlier, Hallman and Haspel discussed consumer perspectives about GMOs on a government-sponsored panel they shared with Eric Sachs of Monsanto.)

Collaborations with industry spin groups

Tamar Haspel’s affinity for and collaborations with key players in the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts raise further concerns about her objectivity.

A promotional quote from Haspel appears on the homepage of STATS/Sense About Science, describing STATS as “invaluable” to her reporting. Other journalists have described STATS as a product-defense “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk and plays a key role in the “hardball politics of chemical regulation.” A 2016 story in The Intercept described the tobacco ties of STATS and Sense About Science (which merged in 2014 under the direction of Trevor Butterworth) and the role they play in pushing industry views about science.

A 2015 public relations strategy document named Sense About Science among the “industry partners” Monsanto planned to engage in its campaign to “orchestrate outcry” against the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency to discredit a report about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Agrichemical industry spin events

In June 2014, Haspel was a “faculty” member (alongside several industry representatives) at a messaging training event called the Biotech Literacy Project Boot Camp that was funded by the agrichemical industry and organized by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two industry front groups that Monsanto also identified as “industry partners” in its 2015 PR plan.

Genetic Literacy Project is a former program of STATS, and Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto to discredit industry critics while keeping corporate fingerprints hidden, according to emails obtained through public records requests.

The boot camp Haspel attended was aimed at “reframing the food safety and GMO debate,” according to the agenda. Paul Thacker reported about the event in The Progressive, “Industry has also secretly funded a series of conferences to train scientists and journalists to frame the debate over GMOs and the toxicity of glyphosate …  In emails, organizers referred to these conferences as biotech literacy bootcamps, and journalists are described as ‘partners.'”

Academics familiar with corporate spin tactics reviewed the boot camp documents at Thacker’s request. “These are distressing materials,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. “It is clearly intended to persuade people that GMO crops are beneficial, needed, and not sufficiently risky to justify labeling.” Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said, “If journalists attend conferences that they are paid to attend, they need to be deeply suspicious from the get-go.”

Cami Ryan, a boot camp staffer who later went on to work for Monsanto, noted in the conference evaluation that participants wanted, “More Haspel-ish, Ropeik-ish sessions.” (David Ropeik is a risk perception consultant whom Haspel quoted in a 2015 Washington Post column that questioned concerns about glyphosate and herbicide-resistant GMO crops.)

2015 biotech literacy day 

In May 2015, Haspel presented at a “biotechnology literacy and communications day” at the University of Florida organized by Kevin Folta, a professor tied in with agrichemical industry public relations and lobbying efforts. Folta had included Haspel in a proposal he sent to Monsanto seeking funding for events he described as “a solution to the biotech communications problem” resulting from activists’ “control of public perception” and their “strong push for clunky and unnecessary food labeling efforts.” Page 4 of the proposal described an event to feature UF professors “and several others brought in from the outside including industry representatives, journalist experts in science communication (e.g. Tamar Haskel [sic], Amy Harmon), and experts in public risk perception and psychology (e.g. Dan Kahan).”

Monsanto funded Folta’s proposal, calling it “a great 3rd-party approach to developing the kind of advocacy we’re looking to develop.” (The money was donated to a food pantry in August 2015 after the funding became public.)

In April 2015, Folta wrote to Haspel with details about the messaging training event, “We’ll cover the costs and an honorarium, whatever that takes. The audience will be scientists, physicians and other professionals that need to learn how to talk to the public.”

Haspel responded, “I am definitely in,” and she relayed an anecdote from another recent “science communication” panel that had changed somebody’s view about Monsanto. “It is possible to make headway, but I’m convinced it’s by person-to-person interactions,” Haspel wrote to Folta.

The archived agenda for the Florida communication day listed the speakers as Haspel, Folta, three other UF professors, Monsanto employee Vance Crowe and representatives from Biofortified and Center for Food Integrity (two more groups Monsanto referred to as industry partners in its PR strategy to defend glyphosate). In another email to Folta, Haspel enthused about meeting Crowe, “Very much looking forward to this. (I’ve wanted to meet Vance Crowe – very glad he’ll be there.)”

Ethics and disclosure

In September 2015, The New York Times featured Folta in a front-page story by Eric Lipton about how industry groups relied on academics to fight the GMO labeling war. Lipton reported on Folta’s fundraising appeal to Monsanto, and that Folta had been publicly claiming he had no associations with Monsanto.

Haspel wrote to Folta a few months later, “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.” Haspel mentioned she was working with the National Press Foundation to develop better conflict of interest standards for freelance journalists.

Haspel was a 2015 fellow for the National Press Foundation (a group partly funded by corporations, including Bayer and DuPont). In an article she wrote for NPF about ethics for freelancers, Haspel discussed the importance of disclosure and described her criteria for speaking at events only if non-industry funders and diverse views are involved — criteria not met by either of the biotech literacy events. The disclosure page on her website does not accurately disclose the conveners and funders of the 2014 biotech literacy boot camp. Haspel has not responded to questions about the biotech literacy events.

Misleading reporting on pesticides

A source review of three of Tamar Haspel’s Washington Post columns on the topic of pesticides turned up examples of undisclosed industry-connected sources, data omissions and out of context reporting that served to bolster industry messaging that pesticides are not a concern and organic is not much of a benefit. The review covers these three columns (referred to below by the year in which they were published).

  • “Is organic better for your health? A look at milk, meat, eggs, produce and fish” (April 7, 2014)
  • “It’s the chemical Monsanto depends on. How dangerous is it?” (October 2015)
  • “The truth about organic produce and pesticides” (May 21, 2018)

Failed to disclose industry connections to sources

In her 2018 column, Haspel gave readers “an idea of the magnitude of risk” from cumulative pesticide exposures by citing a study that equated the risk of consuming pesticides from food to drinking one glass of wine every three months. Haspel did not disclose that four of five authors of that study were employed by Bayer Crop Sciences, one of the world’s largest pesticide manufacturers. The study had originally reported the risk as equal to drinking one glass of wine every seven years; a group of scientists pointed out the problem, along with undisclosed author conflicts and other flaws in this letter to the journal that described the study as “overly simplistic and seriously misleading.” (Haspel linked to both the original study and the corrected version but did not disclose the error to readers.)

To dismiss concerns about the synergistic effects of exposure to multiple pesticides, Haspel cited another study from the only non-Bayer affiliated author of the flawed pesticide-and-wine comparison study, and “a 2008 report” that “made the same assessment.” That report was co-authored by Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto, two scientists who were caught in a “conflict of interest row,” as the Guardian reported in 2016, because they held leadership positions in a group that received substantial donations from the pesticide industry at the same time as they chaired a UN panel that exonerated glyphosate of cancer risk.

Haspel also failed to disclose an industry connection to a data source in her 2014 column that reported disagreement about whether pesticide residues in food pose a health risk. Here she introduced doubt about the health risks of organophosphates, a class of pesticides linked to neurological damage in children, with a review that found “the epidemiological studies did not strongly implicate any particular pesticide as being causally related to adverse neurological developmental outcomes in infants and children.” The lead author of that review was Carol Burns, a scientist at Dow Chemical Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of organophosphates — but Haspel did not inform readers of the corporate connection.

Misled with out-of-context reporting

In her 2014 column, Haspel used a 2012 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics out of context to reinforce her argument that eating organic might not offer health benefits, but she did not inform readers of the full scope of the study or its conclusions. The AAP paper chronicled a wide range of scientific evidence suggesting harm to children from both acute and chronic exposures to various pesticides, and concluded, “Children’s exposures to pesticides should be limited as much as possible.” The report cited evidence of a “drastic immediate decrease in urinary excretion of pesticide metabolites” in children eating an organic diet. AAP also issued policy recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to pesticides.

Haspel left out all that context and reported only that the AAP report, “noted the correlation between organophosphate exposure and neurological issues that had been found in some studies but concluded that it was still ‘unclear’ that reducing exposure by eating organic would be ‘clinically relevant.'”

In her 2018 column, Haspel misleadingly reported that the pesticide chlorpyrifos “has been the subject a battle between environmental groups, which want it banned, and the EPA, which doesn’t” — but she did not inform readers that the EPA had recommended banning chlorpyrifos due to mounting evidence that prenatal exposure could have lasting effects on children’s brains. The agency reversed course only after the Trump EPA interfered. Haspel sourced her misleading “environmental groups vs EPA” sentence with a link to a New York Times documents page that provided little context about the EPA decision, rather than linking to the NYT story that explained the political context of corporate influence.

Relied on industry go-to sources and sources who agree

In her 2018 column, Haspel set up her argument that pesticide exposures in food are not much of a concern with a dubious reporting tactic she has used on other occasions: citing agreement among many sources she knows. In this case, Haspel reported that pesticide levels in food “are very low” and “you shouldn’t be concerned about them,” according to “the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (along with many toxicologists I’ve spoken with over the years).”

Although she reported that, “Not everyone has faith in those assessments,” Haspel cited no disagreeing sources and ignored entirely the American Academy of Pediatrics report that recommended reducing children’s exposures to pesticides, which she cited out of context in her 2014 column.

In her 2015 column about glyphosate, Haspel again quoted like-minded sources, reporting that every scientist she spoke with “noted that until recent questions arose, glyphosate had been noted for its safety.” She quoted Keith Solomon, a toxicologist that Monsanto was promoting as a source on glyphosate, and David Ropeik, the risk perception consultant who presented with Haspel at the industry-funded messaging training boot camp in 2014.

In her 2014 column, Haspel’s source vouching for the safety of pesticide residues in food based on EPA risk assessments was Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California at Davis. Winter was then a member of the science advisory board of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group that works with Monsanto. A few months earlier, ACSH had bragged in a blog post about other “organic doesn’t equal better” news coverage quoting “ACSH advisor Dr. Carl Winter.” Monsanto was also promoting Winter’s work in talking points at that time, according to documents obtained via public records requests (see science analysis circulated to academic allies by Eric Sachs).

Missed relevant data 

Relevant data Haspel missed in her reporting about the risks or pesticides and the benefits of organic included statements by prominent health groups and recent science:

  • January 2018 study by Harvard researchers published in in JAMA Internal Medicine reporting that women who regularly consumed pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables had lower success rates getting pregnant with IVF, while women who ate organic food had better outcomes;
  • January 2018 commentary in JAMA by pediatrician Phillip Landrigan urging physicians to encourage their patients to eat organic;
  • February 2017 report prepared for the European Parliament outlining the health benefits of eating organic food and practicing organic agriculture;
  • 2016 European Parliament Science and Technology Option Assessment recommended reducing dietary intake of pesticides, especially for women and children;
  • 2012 President’s Cancer Panel report recommends reducing children’s exposure to cancer-causing and cancer-promoting environmental exposures;
  • 2012 paper and policy recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending reducing children’s exposure to pesticides as much as possible;
  • 2009 statement by the American Public Health Association, “Opposition to the use of hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy cattle production”;
  • 2002 review by the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Review reporting that growth-promoting hormones in beef production pose a health risk to consumers.

More perspectives on Haspel’s reporting