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.

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

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 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 PR document lists four tiers of industry partners to engage in its public relations efforts. IFIC is listed 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.

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 early education about glyphosate levels and “describe science-based studies versus agenda-driven hypothesis” of the independent cancer panel.

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.”

Big budget food industry spin 

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.

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  

A series of documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know provide a sense of how IFIC operates behind the scenes.

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.” 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.

Solicits corporate funding to confront negative perceptions of processed foods

  • This April 28, 2014 email from an IFIC executive to a long list of IFIC corporate board members describes the IFIC Foundation’s “Understanding our Food” initiative to improve consumer perceptions of processed foods. The emails asks for $10,000 contributions for updated materials and notes that 19 corporate sponsors stepped up in 2014 including Bayer, Coca-Cola, Dow, Kraft, Mars, McDonalds, Monsanto, Nestle, PepsiCo and DuPont.

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.”

Trump’s New CDC Pick Boosts Agency’s Ties To Coca Cola

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See also:

  • New York Times, by Sheila Kaplan, 7/22/2017: “New C.D.C. Chief Saw Coca-Cola as Ally in Obesity Fight”
  • Forbes, Part 2 by Rob Waters, “The Coca-Cola Network: Soda Giant Mines Connections with Officials and Scientists to Wield Influence”

By Rob Waters

Part 1 of 2 stories 

For many years, The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest seller of sugary drinks, has sought to influence health policy and public opinion by forging ties with influential scientists and officials, including at the nation’s top public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Now the Trump administration has appointed a new CDC chief, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who, as Georgia public health commissioner for the past six years, partnered with Coke to run a program against child obesity. Coca-Cola KO +0.00% gave $1 million to Georgia SHAPE, which seeks to increase physical activity in schools but is silent about reducing soda consumption, even though studies have found that high sugar intake, especially in liquid form, is a driver of obesity and diabetes, as well as cancer and heart disease.

In a 2013 press conference, Fitzgerald praised Coke for its “generous award.” She wrote a commentary about the obesity epidemic for Coca-Cola’s website declaring the need to “get our students moving.” And in an interview with a local TV station, she made clear her priorities. Georgia SHAPE, she said, is “going to concentrate on what you should eat”—while saying nothing about what you shouldn’t.

The agency Fitzgerald will now run already had cozy relationships with Coca-Cola. These connections can be seen in emails that circulated between Coke executives, CDC officials and a network of people from universities and industry-backed organizations funded by companies including Coke, Nestlé, Mars Inc. and Mondelez, formerly known as Kraft. The emails, released by the CDC in response to public records requests submitted by U.S. Right to Know, are chatty, sometimes plaintive, often affectionate and occasionally angry and urgent.

In an October 2015 email, Barbara Bowman, a CDC official who has since resigned, offers her appreciation to former Coca-Cola executive Alex Malaspina for a recent dinner. “What a lovely time we had on Saturday nights, many thanks, Alex, for your hospitality.”

In another 2015 email to a group of scientists, all of whom have received research funding from Coca-Cola or other industry-backed organizations, Malaspina asks for “any ideas on how we can counteract” recommendations from a committee of experts advising the U.S. government. The committee wants the government to urge Americans to reduce their consumption of sugar, meat and sodium. In his email, Malaspina dismisses these suggestions as “not based on science.”

And in another note, Coca-Cola executive Rhona Applebaum writes to a CDC official and a Louisiana State University researcher who is leading a large study on child obesity. She has just learned that Mexico is declining to participate in the study because Coke is funding it, and she’s peeved. “So if good scientists take $$$ from Coke–what–they’re corrupted?” she writes.

‘Why is Coke talking to CDC?’

The emails provide a glimpse of the ways that Coca-Cola use connections forged with health officials and scientists to influence policy-makers and journalists. The efforts come at the expense of public health, according to academic researchers who questioned the appropriateness of contacts between Coke and CDC.

“Why is Coke talking to CDC at all? Why is there any line of communication?” asked Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco who researches the effects of sugar consumption on children and adults. “The contact is completely inappropriate and they’re obviously trying to use it to exert influence on a government agency.”

Many of the emails were not directly addressed to anyone at CDC, yet were turned over by the agency to comply with public records requests. This suggests some CDC officials were sent bcc:’s or blind copies.

The emails offer a look at the global network created by Malaspina, a former senior vice president of external affairs at Coca-Cola. The network includes:

  • The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a global organization whose members, according to its website “are companies from the food, agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology and supporting industries.” Coca-Cola was among ILSI’s original funders and Malaspina was its founding president. A budget document obtained by US Right to Know suggests that Coca-Cola gave ILSI $167,000 in 2012 and 2013.
  • The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a Washington-based nonprofit supported by food companies and trade associations including Coca-Cola, the American Beverage Association, the Hershey Company and Cargill Inc. According to its website, IFIC works to “effectively communicate science-based information” about food and “helps journalists and bloggers writing about health, nutrition and food safety.”
  • An assortment of academic scientists with a history of conducting research sponsored by Coca-Cola or ILSI.

Malaspina, who remained involved with Coca-Cola and ILSI after leaving the soda company, emerges in the emails as a principal connecting node in the network. For example, after asking for advice on how to discredit the 2015 recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, he praises the Food Council’s efforts to influence reporters writing about them.

‘Coming Through for Industry’

The Council has just held a media call with 40 reporters to criticize the committee’s recommendations, which IFIC viewed as “demonizing” sugar, meat and potatoes. After the media call, IFIC representatives boasted in an internal memo that they’d influenced the coverage of a number of reporters. Malaspina receives a copy of the memo and forwards it to his colleagues at Coke and his contacts at the CDC.

“IFIC is coming through for industry,” Malaspina writes.

A spokeswoman for the CDC, Kathy Harben, said in an email that her agency “works with the private sector because public-private partnerships advance CDC’s mission of protecting Americans. CDC ensures that, when we engage with the private sector, we are good stewards of the funds entrusted to us and maintain our scientific integrity by participating in a conflict of interest review process that is intended to be both rigorous and transparent.”

Financial ties and questionable contacts between Coca-Cola, academic researchers and the CDC have been exposed in several reports in the past two years.

‘Energy Balance Network’

In 2015, the New York Times and later the Associated Press reported that Rhona Applebaum, Coke’s chief health and science officer, had orchestrated grants to the University of Colorado and the University of South Carolina to start a nonprofit group, the Global Energy Balance Network, that would “inject sanity and reason” into discussions about obesity.

The goal was to push the idea that weight gain is as much related to people’s inadequate physical activity as to their consumption of sugar and calories. After Coca-Cola’s funding was exposed, the energy balance network was disbanded and the University of Colorado announced it would return $1 million to Coke. Applebaum retired three months after the Times story.

Last year, Barbara Bowman announced her retirement from the CDC two days after US Right to Know reported that she had advised Malaspina on ways to influence the World Health Organization and its Director-General Margaret Chan. The WHO had just issued guidelines recommending greatly reduced consumption of sugar, and Malaspina considered these a “threat to our business.”

Other records obtained last year by US Right to Know show that Michael Pratt, senior advisor for global health in the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, had conducted research funded by Coca-Cola and been an advisor to ILSI.

‘We’ll Do Better’

In August 2015, two weeks after the Times story, Coca-Cola Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “We’ll Do Better” that the company’s funding of scientific research had, in many cases, “served only to create more confusion and mistrust.” The company later disclosed that from 2010 to the end of last year, it had spent $138 million funding outside researchers and health programs and created a “transparency” website listing recipients of its funding.

Coca-Cola says it now supports the WHO recommendations that Malaspina wanted to discredit — that people limit their sugar intake to 10% of the calories they consume each day. “We’ve begun our journey towards that goal as we evolve our business strategy to become a total beverage company,” Coca-Cola spokeswoman Katherine Schermerhorn said in an email.

Coca-Cola also pledged to provide no more than 50% of the cost of any scientific research. Will that make a difference in the outcome of the studies? Coca-Cola critics are skeptical, noting that previous studies funded by Coke minimized the negative health impacts of sugar-sweetened or diet beverages. I’ll take a closer look tomorrow at some of the studies that Coke funded – and then passed on to its contacts at the CDC.

Rob Waters is a health and science writer based in Berkeley, California and an investigative reporter for US Right to Know. This story originally appeared in Forbes on July 10.