IFIC explainer: How Big Food defends ultra-processed foods, pesticides, artificial sweeteners

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The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group funded by large food and pesticide companies, misleads the public about diet and health, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. IFIC is widely cited in the media as a source on issues related to food and health.

IFIC and its nonprofit foundation spend about $5 million a year conducting research, producing marketing materials and coordinating industry-aligned messaging about food, health and nutrition. Their messages include promoting and defending sugar, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, food additives, genetically modified (GMO) foods and pesticides, often relying on industry-funded studies. IFIC consistently promotes individual changes and personal responsibility as a solution to diet-related harms, rather than policies to rein in ultra-processed food and chemical companies.

What is the evidence IFIC misleads the public?

An October 2022 study in Globalization and Health found that IFIC “promotes food and beverage company interests and undermines the accurate dissemination of scientific evidence related to diet and health.” The study was written by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and U.S. Right to Know.

Findings include:

  • 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.”
  • 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’s 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…”

The study concludes that “IFIC uses media outlets to preemptively counter information about the negative health impacts of added sugars and ultra-processed foods… 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.”

IFIC and ILSI: “marketing” and “science” team for food companies

A February 2022 study in Globalization and Health, written by researchers at the University of Cambridge and U.S. Right to Know, argues that “IFIC and its Foundation’s communications should be viewed as conducting marketing and public relations for the food industry.” The study explains how IFIC was established to work closely with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a food industry-funded lobby group founded by former Coca-Cola senior vice president Alex Malaspina.

In emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, Malaspina 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.”

The New York Times reported in 2019 that ILSI is a “shadowy lobby group” that “shapes food policies around the world,” often in favor of its corporate funders. According to Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh, Coca-Cola used ILSI to shape China’s obesity policies to emphasize personal responsibility and physical activity. Greenhalgh has described ILSI as “the most important science making entity for the processed food industry.”

Read more in our fact sheet, ILSI is a food industry lobby group

How does IFIC work with corporations?

Corporations and industry groups that have supported IFIC, according to public disclosures, include the American Beverage Association, American Meat Science Association, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bayer CropScience, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Dannon, DowDuPont, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Mars, Nestlé, Perdue Farms and PepsiCo.

Draft tax records for the IFIC Foundation, obtained via state records requests, list the corporations that funded the group in 2011, 2013 or both: Grocery Manufacturers Association, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever. The US Department of Agriculture gave IFIC Foundation $177,480 of taxpayer money in 2013 to produce a “communicator’s guide” to promoting GMO foods.

Produced marketing materials for processed food

Internal records show how IFIC solicits money from corporations for product defense marketing campaigns. An April 28, 2014 email to the IFIC Board of Directors on behalf of Dave Schmidt, then president and CEO of IFIC and the IFIC Foundation, provides an example. Schmidt asked a long list of board members from processed food and chemical companies for $10,000 contributions to update “Understanding our Food” marketing materials to “impact consumers’ perception of processed foods … while also recognizing consumers’ emotional relationship with food.”

Email from IFIC CEO to a long list of corporate board members asking for $10,000 contributions to promote processed foods.

The email notes previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

Spun pesticide cancer report for Monsanto

IFIC also partners with corporations to promote pesticide products and deflect cancer concerns. This internal Monsanto document identifies IFIC as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit a report about glyphosate by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). In 2015, IARC reported that glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In its PR plan to “protect the reputation” of glyphosate-based Roundup weed killers, Monsanto listed IFIC as an “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Food Integrity. The groups were identified as part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert the food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” for the glyphosate cancer report and disseminate its product-defense messaging.

Created patronizing messaging for women

IFIC blogs offer short upbeat assurances that pesticides, chemical food additives and artificial sweeteners are safe. An example of IFIC’s “don’t worry, trust us” messaging is this brochure explaining that chemical food additives and dyes are safe and play an “important role in reducing serious nutritional deficiencies among consumers.” The brochure was “prepared under a partnering agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration.” Another example of this type of messaging can be found in IFIC blogs defending glyphosate. Entries posted on the foodinsight.org website included, “8 crazy ways they’re trying to scare you about fruits and vegetables” and “Cutting through the clutter on glyphosate.”

One image posted on the IFIC website features a woman with a post-it note and a question mark on her head, along with the message, “Before we freak out, let’s ask the experts … the real experts.” The accompanying blog included links to articles written by a former pesticide industry lobbyist and an industry front group. The image and the blog were removed from the website after U.S. Right to Know called attention to them.

Image on the foodinsight.org website communicating IFIC’s product defense messaging for glyphosate. The image was removed from their website after we called attention to it in this fact sheet.

Promoted GMOs to schoolchildren

IFIC coordinated 130 groups via the Alliance to Feed the Future on messaging efforts to “improve understanding” about genetically engineered foods. Members include the industry-funded front groups American Council on Science and Health, the Calorie Control Council and the Center for Food Integrity.

The Alliance to Feed the Future provided free educational curricula to teach students to promote GMOs, including “The Science of Feeding the World” for K-8 teachers and “Bringing Biotechnology to Life” for grades 7-10.

IFIC Board of Trustees

As of 2022, the IFIC Board of Trustees includes executives from ultra-processed food companies such as PepsiCo, General Mills, Mondelēz, Hershey and the food ingredients company Ajinomoto.

IFIC’s co-chair, Regan Bailey, a professor of nutrition for Texas A&M, is a former trustee of the food industry lobby group ILSI NA, which is backed by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other processed food companies (ILSI NA has rebranded under the name Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences, or IAFNS). According to reporting in ProPublica, Bailey has collaborated on studies backed by the Sugar Association, Nestle, Barilla Pasta and the dietary supplement company Pharmavite. She has also served on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

IFIC Trustee Barbara Schneeman, a professor of nutrition at UC Davis, chairs the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. She has also served as a trustee of the food industry lobby group ILSI, and she is president of the Dannon Institute, a nonprofit group managed by Danone North America, a subsidiary of the Danone Group, the world’s sixth largest manufacturer of processed food products.

IFIC Trustee Alison Van Eenennaam, a professor in animal biotechnology and genomics at UC Davis, is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals, crops and the pesticides that accompany them. She is a former Monsanto employee who collaborates closely with the pesticide and biotech industries on messaging and lobbying campaigns, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents library.

IFIC partnerships

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).

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.

Inner workings of IFIC’s PR services for corporations

A series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide a sense of how IFIC operates behind the scenes to spin bad news and defend the products of its corporate sponsors.

Connecting reporters to industry-funded scientists

  • May 5, 2014 email from Matt Raymond, senior director of communications, alerted IFIC leadership and “media dialogue group” to “high profile stories in which IFIC is currently involved” to help spin negative news coverage, including responding to the movie Fed Up. He noted they had connected a New York Times reporter with “Dr. John Sievenpiper, our noted expert in the field of sugars.” Sievenpiper “is among a small group of Canadian academic scientists who have received hundreds of thousands in funding from soft-drink makers, packaged-food trade associations and the sugar industry, turning out studies and opinion articles that often coincide with those businesses’ interests,” according to the National Post.
  • On February 27, 2013, IFIC staff sought analysis from James Hill to confront a paper co-authored by Dr. Robert Lustig connecting sugar and diabetes. Hill was the director of Global Energy Balance Network, a front group funded by Coca-Cola to shift the debate about obesity away from sugar concerns. Those revelations caused GEBN to disband in 2015.
  • Emails from 2010 and 2012 suggest that IFIC relies on a small group of industry-connected scientists to confront studies that raise concerns about GMOs. In both emails, Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor who received undisclosed funds from Monsanto to promote and defend GMOs, advises IFIC on how to respond to studies raising concerns about GMOs.

DuPont executive suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports reported concerns about the safety and environmental impact of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont’s director of biotechnology policy and vice president of the board of Center for Food Integrity, forwarded the email to a scientist with a query for response ideas, and suggested confronting Consumer Reports with this stealth tactic: “Maybe create a letter to the editor signed by 1,000 scientists who have no affiliation with the biotech seed companies stating that they take issue with (Consumer Reports’) statements on the safety and environmental impact. ??”

Disseminates misleading industry talking points

  • April 25, 2012 mail to the 130 members of the Alliance to Feed the Future “on behalf of Alliance member Grocery Manufacturers Association” claimed that the California ballot initiative to label genetically engineered foods “would effectively ban the sale of tens of thousands of grocery products in California unless they contain special labels.” This false messaging was disseminated by the pesticide and food-industry funded campaign against GMO labeling.

Confronts books critical of processed foods

  • A February 20, 2013 email describes IFIC’s strategy to spin two books critical of the food industry, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss, and “Pandora’s Lunchbox” by Melanie Warner. Plans included writing book reviews, disseminating talking points and “exploring additional options to enhance engagement in the digital media measured by the extent of coverage.” In a February 22, 2013 email, an IFIC executive reached out to three academics — Roger Clemens of the University of Southern California, Mario Ferruzzi of Purdue University and Joanne Slavin of University of Minnesota — to ask them to be available for media interviews about the books. The email provided the academics with summaries of the books and IFIC’s talking points defending processed foods. “We will appreciate you sharing any specific talking points about specific science issues that are raised in the books,” states the email from Marianne Smith Edge, IFIC’s senior vice president of nutrition and food safety.

Produces research and surveys to support industry positions

  • IFIC produces a number of research materials and consumer attitude surveys that support industry positions. One example is a 2012 survey that found 76% of consumers “can’t think of anything additional they would like to see on the label” that was used by industry groups to oppose GMO labeling.

Trains professional groups in industry messaging

originally posted May 31, 2018 and updated in October 2022

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