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.

Center for Food Integrity Partners with Monsanto

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The Center for Food Integrity (CFI), formerly the Grow America Project, is an industry-funded 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that conducts research, lobbying and public relations campaigns to “earn consumer trust” for food and agrichemical companies, including DowDuPont, Monsanto, Cargill, Costco, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Hershey, Kroger and trade associations for meat, dairy and soybeans.

In the five-year period from 2012-2016, CFI spent $23,225,098 on various marketing and messaging programs to promote industry messaging to build trust in genetically engineered foods, pesticides, food additives and antibiotics in meat.

CFI’s 501(c)(3) arm, the Foundation for Food Integrity, funds research to inform messaging attempts to build consumer trust, with a spending budget of $823,167 from 2012-2016. Sponsors in 2012 included Monsanto Company, CropLife America and the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance.

“Industry partner” in Monsanto’s attack on IARC cancer panel

This internal Monsanto document identifies the Center for Food Integrity as an “industry partner” in Monsanto’s public relations plan to discredit the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, 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.

The Monsanto plan lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts. CFI is listed as a Tier 3 “industry partner” along with two other food-industry funded groups, the International Food Information Council and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

According to the document, these groups were part of a “Stakeholder Engagement team” that could alert food companies to Monsanto’s “inoculation strategy” to provide education about glyphosate levels and “describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypothesis” of the independent cancer panel.

Look East/CMA partnership with Monsanto and Genetic Literacy Project

The CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, Charlie Arnot, is also CEO of Look East (formerly CMA), a PR and communications agency for food and agriculture. CFI contracts with Look East for project management services, according to tax forms.

Arnot’s PR firm also works with Monsanto, according to documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know. In 2014, Monsanto tapped CMA to “merchandize” and promote a series of pro-GMO policy briefs that a Monsanto executive assigned to professors and arranged to publish on the Genetic Literacy Project website — with no disclosure of Monsanto’s behind-the-scenes role, as the Boston Globe reported.

The Genetic Literacy Project, another industry partner group named in Monsanto’s PR plan to discredit IARC, also receives funding from the Center for Food Integrity, according to the GLP’s most recent and often incorrect “transparency page.”

Jon Entine and Genetic Literacy Project Spin Chemical Industry PR

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Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a central player in Monsanto and the agrichemical industry’s public relations efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides and discredit critics. Monsanto listed Genetic Literacy Project as a “Tier 2 Industry Partner” in its confidential PR plan to “orchestrate outcry” against the International Agency for Research on Cancer for its glyphosate cancer designation.

Entine portrays himself as a science journalist and an objective authority on science. But the evidence shows that he is a longtime public relations operative with deep ties to the chemical industry, including undisclosed industry funding. His work features the defense of GMOs, pesticides, industrial chemicals, the oil industry, fracking and nuclear power.

Linked to: Sense About Science/STATS, Academics Review, Biofortified, AgBioChatter, Drew KershenGMO Answers, Center for Food Integrity, American Council on Science and Health 

Ties to Monsanto

Entine’s former PR firm promised to “address an unfilled frustration voiced by corporations.”

Entine founded ESG MediaMetrics, a communications firm whose clients included Monsanto and the Vinyl Institute.

A Le Monde investigation into Monsanto’s “war on science” in June 2017 describes the Genetic Literacy Project as “a propaganda site” and a key player in Monsanto’s communication and lobbying networks.

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

“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.

The evidence suggests that Genetic Literacy Project and Entine work closely with the agrichemical industry in hidden collaborations, and sometimes in ways that involve undisclosed funding.

According to emails obtained by US Right to Know, GLP published a series of pro-GMO papers written by professors that were assigned and promoted by Monsanto, with no disclosure of the corporation’s role:

  • The Boston Globe reported, Monsanto suggested the topic and headline for a professor’s paper “then connected the professor with a marketing company to pump it out over the Internet as part of Monsanto’s strategy to win over the public and lawmakers.”
  • In a September 2014 email, Monsanto executive Eric Sachs wrote to a professor with “proposed edits on your brief on the costs of regulations,” and told him “the primary outlet” for publishing the papers and “building a merchandising plan” with the public relations firm CMA would be Entine’s Genetic Literacy Project.

In 2014 and 2015, Genetic Literacy Project partnered with a Monsanto-backed groupAcademics Review, to sponsor the Biotechnology Literacy Project “Boot Camps,” a series of conferences designed to teach scientists how to “best engage the GMO debate with a skeptical public.” Reporters were told the funding for the 2015 BLP Boot Camp at UC Davis came from UC Davis, USDA, state money, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) — in fact, the industry group appears to have provided all the funding, as Paul Thacker reported in 2017.  (See section on Entine’s funding for more.)

Entine was also linked to three pro-GMO journalists – Keith Kloor, Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel and New York Times reporter Amy Harmon – in FOIA documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

In a December 2013 email, Entine offered to take the lead on setting up a conference call with Monsanto and PR surrogates to discuss a documentary film idea.

Ties to Syngenta

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a corporate front group funded in part by the agrichemical company Syngenta, published Entine’s 2011 book, “Scared to Death: How Chemophobia Threatens Public Health.” The book defends atrazine, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta.

A 2012 Mother Jones article about Entine describes the circumstances leading up to the publication of the book. 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.

Entine says he had “no idea” that the pesticide company Syngenta was funding his book’s publisher ACSH.

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.

ACSH’s announcement for Entine’s book:

“The American Council on Science and Health is pleased to announce a new book and companion friendly, abbreviated position paper … authored by Jon Entine, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and highly regarded science journalist … ACSH compiled this resource book and position to educate legislators, industry, media, consumers and parents on the actual risks of chemical exposure and use in everyday products.”

Entine denied any relationship with Syngenta and told Philpott he had “no idea” Syngenta was funding ACSH.

Attacks on Syngenta Critics  

In a 2014 New Yorker article, based on internal Syngenta documents, Rachel Aviv revealed how Syngenta’s public relations team plotted to “discredit” UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes, whose research suggests that the herbicide atrazine is associated with birth defects. In emails, Syngenta employees discussed a psychological profile of Hayes and searched for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.”

A month later, Entine wrote an attack piece in Forbes describing Aviv’s story as a “botch puff piece” and calling Hayes “almost completely discredited.” Entine’s primary source was a “summary analysis” by University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, posted on Academics Review. Academics Review, which also partners with Entine to promote GMOs,  claimed to be an independent group started by independent scientists, but emails obtained by USRTK establish that Academics Review was set up with the help of Monsanto as a front group to attack people and groups who raise concerns about GMOs and pesticides.

The Murky Funding Trail to Entine and the Genetic Literacy Project

Entine’s funding history is complex and opaque, but tax documents and his own disclosures reveal a pattern of funding from anonymous sources and right-wing foundations that push deregulation and climate science denial, as well as undisclosed funding from the biotechnology industry.

Inaccurate, ever-changing “transparency” note 

The “financial transparency” note on the Genetic Literacy Project website is inaccurate, changes often and at times contradicts itself.

As of July 18, 2017,  the funding note claimed Genetic Literacy Project was housed under a nonprofit called Science Literacy Project, and received funding from the Templeton, Searle and Winkler foundations and the Center for Food Integrity (a food industry front-group with ties to Monsanto).

Three months earlier, in March 2017, GLP disclosed a $5,000 “pass through” for the Biotech Literacy Boot Camp from “Academics Review Charitable Association,” which appears not to exist. That group is apparently AcademicsReview.org, a front group closely affiliated with Monsanto. The disclosure said the money came from BIO, the biotechnology industry trade association. A September 2016 disclosure note reported $27,000 in “pass through” funds from Academics Review Charitable Association for the boot camps, but did not mention BIO.

The Academics Review partnership was removed from the GLP disclosure altogether after Paul Thacker reported on July 11 2017, that BIO had paid Academics Review over $300,000 for boot camps in 2014 and 2015 at UC Davis and the University of Florida that were co-sponsored by GLP. Industry appeared to be the only funder but Entine and his partner told journalists and scientists that the boot camps were partly funded by university and government sources.

The new funding note also misleadingly describes GLP as independent of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) and GMU, and does not disclose that STATS and its sister group CMPA paid Entine over a half million dollars between 2012-2016. In 2012, Entine claimed that he derived the bulk of his income from the Genetic Literacy Project, according to reporting by Tom Philpott.

In March 2016, Genetic Literacy Project made no financial disclosures at all and tried to distance itself from STATS. In 2012, the Genetic Literacy Project claimed it was affiliated with STATS.

Center for Media and Public Affairs/George Mason University

For the year ending June 2016, according to tax records, Entine received $173,100 for his work as “director” at Center for Media and Public Affairs, a group based at George Mason University and founded by GMU Professor Robert Lichter.

CMPA was paid by Phillip Morris in the 1990s to deflect concerns about tobacco, according to documents in the UCSF Tobacco Industry Library.

CMPA does not disclose its funders but has received funding from George Mason University Foundation — the leading recipient of donations affiliated with Charles Koch and Koch Industries. GMUF also received $5.3 million from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund between 2011-13, according to the Guardian. These funds channel money from anonymous donors including corporations to campaigns and academics who push industry interests, as Greenpeace demonstrated in an undercover investigation.

STATS – key player in chemical industry defense efforts 

CMPA’s sister group, also founded by Lichter and based at GMU, is Statistical Assessment Services (STATS). According to its IRS forms, STATS paid Entine $140,600 in 2012/2013 and $152,500 in 2013/2014 for his work as a “research consultant,” and $173,100 as “director” for the year ending June 2015. The tax records show that Entine received a total of $639,300 from STATS or CMPA between 2012-2016

CMPA has loaned money to STATS – a $203,611 loan in 2012 and a $163,914 loan in 2013, which “due to inadequate funding” has “not been reimbursed.” In those years, George Mason University Foundation gave CMPA grants in the amount of $220,900 in 2012 and $75,670 in 2013. GMU Foundation does not disclose the source of its funds.

Reporting in The Intercept, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Atlantic and Consumer Reports portray STATS as a key player in the chemical industry’s PR efforts to defend its toxic products.

Biotechnology industry funding

The GMO-industry trade group, BIO, paid a total of $340,000 to fund Biotech Literacy Boot Camps at the University of Florida in 2014 and UC Davis in 2015 that were co-sponsored by the Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, which boot camp materials described as “an independent nonprofit organization.” In fact, Academics Review was set up as a front group  with the help of a Monsanto executive who promised to find funding for Academics Review “while keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information,” according to emails obtained by US Right to Know.

The BLP Boot Camps were described as a “communication skills training” for scientists and journalists to help reframe the food safety and GMO debate, and promised to provide scientists with the “tools and support resources necessary to effectively engage the media and appear as experts in legislative and local government hearings, and other policy making and related outreach opportunities.”

Faculty at the first first boot camp included representatives from the agrichemical industry, food industry front groups and trade groups, and pro-GMO academics including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta, and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, both of whom have accepted undisclosed funding from Monsanto and promote the GMOs and pesticides that Monsanto sales rely upon. Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel, who also accepts money from agribusiness interests, was the journalist on faculty.

Climate science denier funders 

Major supporters of STATS and Entine’s group Genetic Literacy Project also include right-wing foundations – primarily Scaife Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust and Templeton Foundation – that are leading funders of climate science denial, according to a 2013 Drexel University study.

See USRTK investigation: Climate Science Denial Network Funds Toxic Chemical Propaganda.

Attacks on Critics of ExxonMobil

Entine attacked Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt, as “a populist Luddite, the intellectual Rottweiler of in-your-face, environmentalism, unduly wary of modern technology.”

Entine attacked Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll and journalist Susanne Rust for their series reporting that Exxon knew for years that climate change was real but hid the science to keep revenues flowing.

In a follow-up attack, Entine accused Rust of having a “journalistic history” that raises “ethical and science questions.” He cited as evidence Rust’s award-winning investigative series on BPA that was short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize. The BPA reporting, he wrote, was “dead wrong.” He didn’t mention that the series outed his former group STATS as a “major player in the public relations effort to discredit concerns about BPA.”

Chemical Industry Defense Guy

For many years, Entine has been a prominent defender of chemical industry interests, following the industry playbook: he defends the chemicals as safe; argues against regulation; and attacks science, scientists journalists and others raising concerns.

Defending Neonicotinoids

Growing scientific evidence suggests that neonicotinoids, the most widely used class of pesticides, are a key factor in bee die-offs. The European Union has restricted neonics due to concerns about impact on bees.

Entine:

  • Accused European politicians of trying to kill bees by restricting neonics (Forbes).

Defending Phthalates

In August of 2012, Entine defended vinyl plastic backpacks that were found to be exposing children to phthalates.

  • Entine criticized an NBC reporter for “shoddy journalism” for raising questions about the safety of phthalates (Forbes).

Defending Fracking

Entine defends hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the pumping of high-pressure chemical-laced water into the ground to crack shale and extract natural gas. As in his many other messaging campaigns, Entine blasts science and scientists who raise concerns, framing them as “activists,” while making sweeping and indefensible statements about “scrupulous” science conducted over many years that defend its safety.

For example, Entine claimed: “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up” from fracking (New York Post).

Entine also:

  • Accused New York Times reporters of misleading children about the potential environmental dangers of fracking (Forbes).
  • Attacked two Cornell University scientists for their study suggesting that fracking operations leak methane (Forbes).
  • Attacked the Park Foundation, claiming that it has “almost single-handedly derailed shale-gas development in methane-rich New York State, and put its imprint on public opinion and policy decisions around the country.” (Philanthropy Roundtable)

Defending BPA

Entine writes in defense of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), despite a large body of scientific evidence raising concerns about its endocrine disrupting potential and other health problems associated with it. Canada declared the chemical to be toxic in 2010, and the EU banned BPA in baby bottles in 2011.

Entine:

  • Attacked “a small but determined group of university researchers, activist NGOs and journalists” raising concerns about BPA (Forbes).
  • Tells women who can’t get pregnant not to blame it on plastics (Forbes).
  • Challenged scientists linking BPA to heart disease (Forbes).

Defending Nuclear Power

Entine:

  • Criticized Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes for pointing out the economic and environmental risks of nuclear power (Huffington Post).
  • Claims that nuclear power plants are environmentally benign and that “Nothing as bad as Chernobyl is likely to occur in the West” (Jon Entine).
  • Argued that Germany is “taking a gamble” by transitioning away from nuclear power (Ethical Corporation)

Fellowships

Entine was an unpaid fellow at the Center for Health and Risk Communication at George Mason University (GMU) from 2011-2014. Entine is also a former senior fellow at the UC Davis World Food Center’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, which does not disclose its donors, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a DC think tank funded in part by corporate and dark money contributions.

See also, Greenpeace Polluter Watch page on Jon Entine and “the hidden story of the Genetic Literacy Project.”