The American Council on Science and Health is a Corporate Front Group

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The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is a front group for the tobacco, agrichemical, fossil fuel, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Emails released from lawsuits against Monsanto in 2018 and leaked financial documents from 2012 reveal the ACSH’s corporate funding and its strategies to spin science in defense of corporate products to secure financial support from corporations.

Ties to Monsanto

August 2017: A series of emails about the American Council on Science and Health released via lawsuits against Monsanto reveal that Monsanto paid ACSH on an ongoing basis to help defend its embattled products. Monsanto executives described ACSH’s materials promoting and defending agrichemical products as “EXTREMELY USEFUL” [sic] and noted that ACSH was working with Monsanto to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer panel report about the cancer risk of  glyphosate (read more about Monsanto PR strategy to discredit IARC here).

The emails show that ACSH staff wrote to Monsanto requesting “Monsanto’s continued, and much needed, support in 2015.” Some Monsanto staffers were uncomfortable working with ACSH but decided to pay them anyway, according to the emails. Monsanto’s senior science lead Daniel Goldstein wrote to colleagues: “I can assure you I am not all starry eyed about ACSH- they have PLENTY of warts- but: You WILL NOT GET A BETTER VALUE FOR YOUR DOLLAR than ACSH.”

July 11, 2017: Paul Thacker reported in the Progressive: “Monsanto ignored repeated questions about their financial support for the American Council on Science and Health.” ACSH Director Hank Campbell responded in a post: “I don’t care. If a large food corporation, like Whole Foods, or a smaller one, like Monsanto, wants to buy an ad here, they can. We will cash that check.”

June 1, 2017: Le Monde investigation into Monsanto’s “war on science” described ACSH as a key player in Monsanto’s communication and lobbying network (see English translation).

May 2017: Plaintiffs’ attorneys suing Monsanto over glyphosate cancer concerns stated in a brief:

“Monsanto quietly funnels money to ‘think tanks’ such as the ‘Genetic Literacy Project’ and the ‘American Council on Science and Health,’ organizations intended to shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers.”

August 2013: Emails reveal that Monsanto tapped ACSH to publish a series of pro-GMO papers assigned to professors by Monsanto and merchandized by a PR firm:

Monsanto executive Eric Sachs wrote to the professors: “To ensure that the papers have the greatest impact, the American Council for Science and Health is partnering with CMA Consulting to drive the project. The completed policy briefs will be offered on the ACSH website … CMA and ACSH also will merchandize the policy briefs, including the development of media specific materials, such as op-eds, blog postings, speaking engagements, events, webinars, etc.”

The papers were published in the end by Jon Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project (a close ally of ACSH) with no disclosure of Monsanto’s role.

Leaked ACSH docs reveal corporate-defense funding strategy

A leaked 2012 ACSH financial summary reported by Mother Jones revealed that ACSH has received funding from a large number of corporations and industry groups with a financial stake in the science messaging ACSH promotes — and showed how ACSH solicits corporate donations for quid pro quo product-defense campaigns. For example, the document outlines:

  • Plans to pitch the Vinyl Institute which “previously supported chlorine and health report”
  • Plans to pitch food companies for a messaging campaign to oppose GMO labeling
  • Plans to pitch cosmetic companies to counter “reformulation pressures” from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
  • Efforts to court tobacco and e-cigarette companies

Mother Jones reported, “ACSH’s donors and the potential backers the group has been targeting comprise a who’s-who of energy, agriculture, cosmetics, food, soda, chemical, pharmaceutical, and tobacco corporations.” Funding details:

  • ACSH donors in the second half of 2012 included Chevron, Coca-Cola, the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, Bayer Cropscience, Procter and Gamble, Syngenta, 3M, McDonald’s, and tobacco conglomerate Altria. ACSH also pursued financial support from Pepsi, Monsanto, British American Tobacco, DowAgro, ExxonMobil Foundation, Philip Morris International, Reynolds American, the Koch family-controlled Claude R. Lambe Foundation, the Dow-linked Gerstacker Foundation, the Bradley Foundation and Searle Freedom Trust.
  • Reynolds American and Phillip Morris International were the two largest donors listed in the documents.

Ties to Syngenta

In 2011, ACSH published a book about “chemophobia” written by Jon Entine, who also has many close ties to Monsanto. Entine’s book defended atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta, which was funding ACSH.

A 2012 Mother Jones article describes the circumstances leading up to the publication. The article by Tom Philpott is based in part on internal company documents, obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, describing Syngenta’s PR efforts to get third-party allies to spin media coverage of atrazine.

In one email from 2009, ACSH staff asked Syngenta for an additional $100,000 – “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years” – to produce an atrazine-friendly paper and “consumer-friendly booklet” to help educate media and scientists.

Email from ASCH staffer Gil Ross to Syngenta seeking funding for science project on atrazine “controversy” to include a peer reviewed paper and accompanying “consumer friendly booklet”:

A year and a half later, ACSH published Entine’s book with this release: “The American Council on Science and Health is pleased to announce a new book and companion friendly, abbreviated position paper … authored by Jon Entine.” Entine denied any relationship with Syngenta and told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

ACSH Personnel

  • ACSH’s longtime “Medical/Executive Director” Dr. Gilbert Ross was convicted in a scheme to defraud the Medicaid system prior to joining ACSH. See court documents about Dr. Ross’ multiple fraud convictions and sentencing, and article in Mother Jones “Paging Dr. Ross” (2005). Dr. Ross was found to be a “highly untrustworthy individual” by a judge who sustained the exclusion of Dr. Ross from Medicaid for 10 years (see additional references and court document).
  • In June 2015, Hank Campbell took over ACSH leadership from acting president (and convicted felon) Dr. Gilbert Ross. Campbell worked for software development companies before starting the website Science 2.0 in 2006. In his 2012 book, “Science Left Behind: Feel Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti Science Left,” Campbell describes his background: “six years ago… I decided I wanted to write science on the Internet … with nothing but enthusiasm and a concept, I approached world famous people about helping me reshape how science could be done, and they did it for free.”

Incorrect statements about science 

ACSH has:

  • Claimed that “There is no evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke involves heart attacks or cardiac arrest.” Winston-Salem Journal, 2012
  • Argued that “there is no scientific consensus concerning global warming.” ACSH, 1998
  • Argued that fracking “doesn’t pollute water or air.” Daily Caller, 2013
  • Claimed that “There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country.” Tobacco Documents Library, UCSF, The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition document page 9, 1995
  • Declared that “There is no evidence that BPA [bisphenol A] in consumer products of any type, including cash register receipts, are harmful to health.” ACSH, 2012
  • Argued that the exposure to mercury, a potent neurotoxin, “in conventional seafood causes no harm in humans.” ACSH, 2010.

Recent ACSH messaging continues in the same theme, denying risk from products that are important to the chemical, tobacco and other industries, and making frequent attacks on scientists, journalists and others who raise concerns.

  • A 2016 “top junk science” post by ACSH denies that chemicals can cause endocrine disruption; defends e-cigarettes, vaping and soda; and attacks journalists and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

USA Today gives ACSH a platform 

USA Today continues to publish columns by ACSH president Hank Campbell and senior fellow Alex Berezow, who is also member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, without disclosing their funding ties to corporations whose interests they defend.

In February 2017, 30 health, environmental, labor and public interest groups wrote to the editors of USA Today asking the paper to stop providing a platform of legitimacy to ACSH or at least provide full disclosures about who funds the group.

The letter states:

  • “We are writing to express our concern that USA Today continues to publish columns written by members of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate-funded group with a long history of promoting corporate agendas that are at odds with mainstream science. USA Today should not be helping this group promote its false identity as a credible, independent source on science. Your readers deserve accurate information about what and whom this group represents, as they reflect on the content of the columns.”
  • “These are no idle allegations. Many of the undersigned health, environmental, labor and public interest groups have been tracking ACSH’s work over the years. We have documented instances in which the group has worked to undermine climate change science, and deny the health threats associated with various products, including second-hand smokefrackingpesticides and industrial chemicals – all without being transparent about its corporate backers.”
  • We note that financial documents obtained by Mother Jones show that ACSH has received funding from tobacco, chemical, pharmaceutical and oil corporations. Public interest groups have reported that ACSH received funding from the Koch Foundations between 2005-2011, and released internal documents showing that ACSH solicited $100,000 from Syngenta in 2009 to write favorably about its product atrazine – a donation that was to be “separate and distinct from general operating support Syngenta has been so generously providing over the years.”
  • “At a time when the public is questioning the legitimacy of the news media, we believe it is vital for publications such as USA Today to follow the highest standards of journalistic ethics and serve the public with as much truth and transparency as possible. We respectfully ask you to refrain from publishing further columns authored by members of the American Council on Science and Health, or at the very least require that the individuals identify the organization accurately as a corporate-funded advocacy group.”

As of December 2017, USA Today editorial page editor Bill Sternberg has declined to stop publishing ACSH columns and the paper has repeatedly provided inaccurate or incomplete disclosures for the columns, and failed to notify its readers about ACSH’s funding from corporations whose agenda they promote.

IFIC: How Big Food Spins Bad News

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Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know and other sources shine light on the inner workings of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a trade group funded by large food and agrichemical companies, and its nonprofit “public education arm” the IFIC Foundation. The IFIC groups conduct research and training programs, produce marketing materials and coordinate other industry groups to communicate industry spin about food safety and nutrition. Messaging includes promoting and defending sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides and genetically engineered foods.

Spinning pesticide cancer report for Monsanto 

As one example of how IFIC partners with corporations to promote agrichemical products and deflect cancer concerns, this internal Monsanto document identifies IFIC as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research team, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), to protect the reputation of Roundup weedkiller. In March 2015, IARC judged glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, to be probably carcinogenic to humans.

Monsanto listed IFIC as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Food Integrity.

How IFIC tries to communicate its message to women.

The document identifies IFIC, GMA and the Center for Food Integrity as part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert the food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” for the glyphosate cancer report.

Blogs later posted on the IFIC website illustrate the group’s patronizing “don’t worry, trust us” messaging to women.  Entries include, “8 crazy ways they’re trying to scare you about fruits and vegetables,” “Cutting through the clutter on glyphosate,” and “Before we freak out, let’s ask the experts … the real experts.”

Corporate funders  

IFIC spent $23,659,976 in the five-year period from 2012-2016, while the IFIC Foundation spent $5,639,289 from 2011-2015, according to tax forms filed with the IRS. Corporations and industry groups that support 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, Nestle, 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” for promoting genetically engineered foods.

IFIC also solicits money from corporations for specific product-defense campaigns. This April 28, 2014 email from an IFIC executive to a long list of corporate board members asks for $10,000 contributions to update the “Understanding our Food” initiative to improve consumer views of processed foods. The email notes lists the previous financial supporters: Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

Promotes GMOs to school children  

IFIC coordinates 130 groups via the Alliance to Feed the Future on messaging efforts to “improve understanding” about genetically engineered foods. Members include the American Council on Science and Health, the Calorie Control Council, the Center for Food Integrity and The Nature Conservancy.

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

The inner workings of IFIC’s PR services 

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.

Connects 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. 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.
  • 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 pushes the view that there is no difference between conventional bred and genetically engineered crops.

DuPont exec suggests stealth strategy to confront Consumer Reports

  • In a February 3, 2013 email, IFIC staff alerted its “media relations group” that Consumer Reports had reported about safety and environmental concerns of GMOs. Doyle Karr, DuPont 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. ??”

Other PR services IFIC provides to industry

  • 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 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.”
  • Confronts troublesome books: February 20, 2013 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.
  • Research and surveys to 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.
  • “Don’t worry, trust us” marketing brochures, such as this one explaining that artificial sweeteners and food dyes are nothing to worry about.

Who’s Behind the Attacks on U.S. Right to Know?

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There have been a couple of recent attacks on U.S. Right to Know, so I thought it might be useful to sketch out who is behind them.

A March 9 article in the Guardian criticized us for sending Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover the connections between taxpayer-paid professors and the genetically engineered food industry’s PR machine. All three of the article’s authors are former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But the article failed to disclose their financial ties.

The first author, Nina Federoff is identified as “an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University” but omits that she works at OFW Law, which is a powerhouse food and agribusiness lobbying firm. OFW Law is registered as lobbying for the Council for Biotechnology Information and Syngenta.

We requested correspondence from both Syngenta and CBI — whose members include “BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto Company and Syngenta” —  so we can understand why Ms. Federoff might wish to defend them without disclosing who her firm’s clients are.

The second author, Peter Raven, is identified as Director Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is so intertwined with Monsanto that it even has a Monsanto Center and a Monsanto Hall. The Peter H. Raven Library is on the Fourth Floor of the Monsanto Center. A 2012 news release states that, “Monsanto Company and Monsanto Fund have been among the most generous benefactors of the Missouri Botanical Garden over the past 40-plus years, contributing about $10 million for numerous key capital, science and education projects during that period.”

The third author, Phillip Sharp, works at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT — yes, the same David Koch of the Koch Brothers. In their article, the authors liken us to climate change deniers. For someone connected to the Koch Institute to link us with climate change deniers is beyond ironic. Dr. Sharp also has close ties to the biotech industry, as co-founder of the company Biogen.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is acting like the American Association for the Advancement of Monsanto. That, truly, is a loss for science, and for us all.

Also, the Cornell Alliance for Science has been attacking U.S. Right to Know and organizing a petition against our FOIA requests regarding the agrichemical industry PR and political campaigns to defend GMOs.

The Cornell Alliance for Science began last year with a “$5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” the world’s largest foundation, which is a promoter of and investor in the agrichemical industry. The CEO of the Gates Foundation, Sue Desmond-Hellman, worked for fourteen years at the biotech company Genentech.

The Cornell Alliance for Science says that their “goal” is to “depolarize the GMO debate,” but attacking our consumer group is an odd way to “depolarize” the debate over the health and environmental effects of genetically engineered food and crops.