By Saheli Khastagir and Stacy Malkan
In 2016, the American honey industry faced a crisis: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had found high levels of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer, in honey samples from Iowa. The FDA detected the weed-killing chemical at up to 653 parts per billion (ppb) in honey – more than 13 times the limit allowed in the European Union. Consumer groups filed at least two lawsuits against the honey industry.
Internal emails shed light on what happened next. The National Honey Board (NHB), a honey industry-funded agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, did what many businesses under fire have done: They hired a crisis management public relations firm, in this case to downplay the risks of glyphosate in honey. The PR firm, Porter Novelli, later worked with the NHB to deflect concerns about honey containing neonicotinoids. The insect-killing chemicals are tied to the collapse of bee colonies.
At the same time, Porter Novelli was working for Bayer, a leading manufacturer of glyphosate and neonicotinoids. The PR firm’s work for Bayer included promoting the use of neonicotinoids and opposing regulations that would safeguard honey bees. Porter Novelli’s clientele has also included Dow Chemical, a pesticide industry trade group, and Growing Matters, a coalition supported by Bayer, Syngenta and BASF that defends neonics.
A conflict of interest?
The conflict of interest seems clear. By allowing a pesticide-industry PR firm to manage its public communications about pesticides in honey, the NHB is using its brand to legitimize the continued use of bee-harming pesticides, and working against the three pillars it claims to promote – namely, that of bees, honey and the environment.
When asked about this conflict, the NHB said via email that the board “exists to increase the consumption and promote the benefits of honey in the U.S.” and that it does so “in partnership with agencies who align with our mission and values.” NHB said it requires its partners “to undergo a thorough process to ensure such alignment.” Porter Novelli, the email implies, fit the bill.
Crisis management playbook
In the wake of the glyphosate-in-honey scandal, the National Honey Board asked eight PR agencies for proposals for “crisis response” services, according to minutes from a board meeting obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests. Honey board CEO Margaret Lombard told the board that Porter Novelli was the only firm that “recognized and came forth with solutions for the glyphosate issue.”
In an April 2017 meeting, the NHB confirmed that “Porter Novelli has been very involved in having the board prepared with a response” to the problem of glyphosate in honey. Soon after, NHB named Porter Novelli as its “public relations agency of record.” The PR agency still holds the role as of June 2023.
“I hope the conversation stays away from honey and dies a speedy death.”NHB CEO Margaret Lombard
In the fall of 2017, the honey industry faced another possible PR crisis. In a worldwide survey of honey, researchers found traces of neonicotinoids in 75% of honey samples tested. Porter Novelli flagged the problem for the NHB: “Wanted to call your attention to the first story in this report. We will write up some messaging,” Porter Novelli’s Sean Smith wrote to Lombard. He forwarded an article from The Verge reporting that “three-quarters of all honey on Earth has pesticides in it.” The article quotes one of the study’s authors commenting, “There is almost no safe place for a bee to exist.”
Smith described his “scan of the social media conversation” about the new pesticides-in-honey study. “It was less about honey and more about how Big Ag and chemical companies are evil,” Smith wrote. “The conversation was largely driven by the same type of activist or activist organizations that tend to beat their chests when this kind of news comes about. Overall was along the lines of what you would expect – no surprise we’re poisoning our world blaming the EPA why aren’t we doing anything about it etc.” (sic)
Lombard wrote back, “I hope the conversation stays away from honey and dies a speedy death.”
Casting doubt on harm to bees
“Honey is one of nature’s purest products … and it is totally safe to eat,” according to the draft statement Porter Novelli prepared for the NHB. The next day, Lombard emailed Sue Coleman, a marketing specialist with the USDA. “We have had some negative stories running this week about pesticides in honey,” Lombard told Coleman. “Here is a statement we would like approval on ASAP.”
Coleman, Lombard and another Porter Novelli staffer suggested edits to the statement, the emails show (specific edits are redacted so it is not possible to tell who suggested which edits). The final statement, similar to the original draft, downplayed concerns about the impact of neonicotinoids on human health. It had also been edited to do a better job casting doubt on the harm neonics pose to bees.
According to the NHB statement (emphasis added by us), “The concentrations found in honey were well below thresholds that would pose any risk to humans. However, our industry is concerned that neonicotinoids could be a contributing factor to poor pollinator health, which is why the National Honey Board allocates five percent of its revenue each year to bee health research and has done so since 2008 representing funding of over $3 million to-date…”
An earlier draft of the statement had read, “our industry is concerned that neonicotinoids are a contributing factor.” That was edited to read “could be” a factor.
The USDA-approved messaging is contradicted by an extensive body of scientific evidence showing that neonics can harm and kill bees; the insecticides are acutely toxic to bees, can interfere with their ability to find food, and also hurt their ability to reproduce. Studies suggest the insecticides are threatening the entire food web.
Downplaying human health concerns
The NHB statement also downplays growing concerns about the human health impacts of neonics. Studies show the insecticides are toxic to the brain and nervous system. They are commonly found in drinking water and in people. About half the U.S. population is exposed to at least one neonic on a regular basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children ages 3-5 years old had the highest levels. Recent studies have found multiple neonicotinoids in the spinal fluid, blood and urine of children.
The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that infants up to 1 year old are exposed through food and water to roughly 70-80% of the maximum acceptable limit for each of two neonics, explains Jennifer Sass, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She writes, “Had EPA evaluated the cumulative toxic impacts of all neonics together (which it should have) then exposure to infants would exceed EPA’s acceptable limit.”
Long history of defending pesticides
Porter Novelli is not new to managing crises for polluting corporations. The firm has come under fire for promoting fossil fuels; it later dropped a gas industry trade group as a client, but its work for the pesticide industry has been ongoing for years.
Bayer has employed Porter Novelli since at least 2014. When a Canadian media outlet tried to reach Bayer to discuss the link between neonicotinoids and bee deaths, it repeatedly reached the “public relations arm” of the company – Porter Novelli. The PR firm handled all communication on behalf of Bayer, and Bayer did not provide a single staff member to go on record about the issue.
In 2017, as Porter Novelli was downplaying concerns for the NHB about glyphosate and neonics found in honey, the PR firm was also working for Bayer, one of the largest producers of both pesticides, to create a report arguing against pollinator protection laws.
“The greatest public relations coup has been the push to reframe the debate around bee decline to focus only on the threat of Varroa mites.”Lee Fang, The Intercept
Porter Novelli also won an “issues management” award that year for managing Bayer’s Bee Care Program. Critics describe the Bee Care program as a Big Tobacco-style PR strategy that diverts attention away from the leading role Bayer’s pesticides play in harming bees, while portraying Bayer as a champion for solving the problem. Their main tactic, as the New York Times reported, is pointing a finger at a “different culprit” in the bee crisis: Varroa mites. While the mites are a problem for bees, beekeepers have historically been able to manage that problem, and studies show that neonicotinoids are weakening bees and making them more susceptible to threats like the mites.
The pesticide industry’s “greatest public relations coup,” according to Lee Fang’s investigation in The Intercept, “has been the push to reframe the debate around bee decline to focus on the threat of Varroa mites.”
More diversionary tactics
Porter Novelli has also worked for the pesticide industry-funded coalition Growing Matters to pitch an economic study claiming that “neonics save consumers billions of dollars,” and create a fact sheet that states, inaccurately, that “neonicotinoids are not linked to bee health decline when products are applied according to label direction.”
Porter Novelli also handles Growing Matter’s BeSure! Stewardship Campaign. Now in its fifth year, the campaign promotes best practices around the use of neonics, displaying caring for bees while pinning the blame for bee declines on farmers’ misuse of neonics.
CropLife America, the pesticide industry lobby group, has also hired Porter Novelli’s subsidiary, Paradigm Communications, to “lead the effort to shift how pesticide products were portrayed in search engine results,” according to the Intercept. Search terms compiled by CropLife America staff included “neonicotinoid,” “pollinators,” and “neonics.”
As other countries responded to the science by banning neonics, in the U.S., “industry dug in, seeking not only to discredit the research but to castpesticide companies as a solution to the problem,” Fang reported in the Intercept. “Lobbying documents and emails … show a sophisticated effort over the last decade by the pesticide industry to obstruct any effort to restrict the use of neonicotinoids.”
Porter Novelli’s sister PR firms Ketchum and FleishmanHillard – all three firms are owned by Omnicom – also have long histories of working with pesticide companies to oppose public health regulations. Ketchum and FleishmanHillard played key roles in defending glyphosate from cancer concerns and they used underhanded tactics to do so. These included cooking up an astroturf lobbying campaign designed to look like a grassroots farmers’ effort to oppose glyphosate restrictions in the EU, and ghostwriting content defending pesticides for academics who claimed to be independent.
Issues management 101
Porter Novelli brings a similar approach to the NHB. The PR firm offered NHB a combination of consumer outreach aimed at convincing Americans to buy more honey, along with crisis response services.
In one of the 2017 NHB meetings, Porter Novelli representatives explained their strategy to get “in front of any issues and to stop it as quickly as possible.” This meant scouring the internet for news impacting the honey industry, then preparing a response for the honey board to downplay concerns. In another meeting, the PR firm discussed their progress creating a “crisis playbook,” developing “bee health” messaging, and educating third parties including 50 “dietician influencers.”
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