Our Investigation of Big Food and its Front Groups

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Update: This blog has been updated to include a running list of news stories and commentary generated by our ongoing investigation.

U.S. Right to Know is conducting an investigation into the collusion betwUSRTK_FOIArequestsAgroChemical_1een Big Food, its front groups, and university faculty and staff to deliver industry PR to the public. That investigation is ongoing.  Thus far, it has been fruitful, as today’s New York Times article shows.

The Times article links to emails obtained via state Freedom of Information Act requests filed by U.S. Right to Know. These emails reveal how Monsanto and its partners use so-called “independent” third-party scientists and professors to deliver their PR messaging. Since the companies themselves are not credible messengers, they use these scientists and professors as sock-puppets to shape the media narrative on food issues, particularly GMOs.

This is a key part of Big Food’s PR strategy.  The agrichemical and food industries are spending vast sums of money to convince the public that their food, crops, GMOs, additives and pesticides are safe, desirable and healthy.

U.S. Right to Know has filed state Freedom of Information Acts requests to try to obtain the emails and documents of 43 public university faculty and staff, to learn more about this public relations effort.  Thus far, we have received documents in nine of these requests.  So, most of the documents are likely still to come.  Some may arrive next week, others may perhaps take a year or even more to arrive.

We have requested records from scientists, economists, law professors, extension specialists and communicators.  All work in public institutions, funded by the taxpayers.  We believe the public deserves to know more about the flow of money and level of coordination between public university scientists and other academics, and the agrichemical and food companies whose interests they promote.

We have a right to know what’s in our food, and how companies attempt to influence our views about it. Yet some find transparency so threatening that they equate consumer campaigns with vile dictatorships – as in a recent Facebook post that featured my picture alongside that of Stalin and Hitler. Others have compared our work to “terrorism” and us to “terrorists.”

Transparency – and investigative reporting about our food – is the core of what we do here are U.S. Right to Know.

We believe in the words of James Madison, who wrote: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Finally, a brief word about University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta.  The most important findings in today’s New York Times article are about the PR efforts of Monsanto and the agrichemical industry.  But it is worth pointing out that Professor Folta repeatedly denied – falsely – having ties to Monsanto or having accepted funds from Monsanto.  For example, Professor Folta has stated:

Professor Folta has also falsely claimed he never used the text written for him by the PR firm Ketchum.

At best, these statements by Professor Folta are misleading, and some of them are untruthful. Yet, as the emails released today reveal, Folta has been in close contact with Monsanto and the industry’s PR firm Ketchum, recently received a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto, and even wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I’m glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.” (Also see our Feb. 2015 letter to Professor Folta about our FOIA requests.)

Professor Folta aside, it is also important to note that our drive for transparency is not about one or a few people. This is about the extent to which corporations such as Monsanto and their front groups are using our public universities and the scientists and academics who work there as tools to promote their agendas and their profits.

See our investigations page for up-to-date details on our findings

News articles about our investigation

2017

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Defends Professor’s Monsanto Ties, But Some Faculty Disagree

CBC News: University of Saskatchewan Prof Under Fire for Monsanto Ties

BMJ: Coca-Cola’s secret influence on medical and science journalists

USRTK press release: BMJ reveals secret industry funding of reporting, based on USRTK documents  

Huffington Post: Moms Exposed to Monsanto Weed Killer Means Bad Outcomes for Babies

Huffington Post: USDA Drops Plans to Test for Monsanto Weed Killer in Food 

USRTK fact sheet: Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide 

USRTK: MDL Monsanto Glyphosate Cancer Case Key Documents and Analysis 

Huffington Post: Monsanto Weed Killer Deserves Deeper Scrutiny as Scientific Manipulation Revealed

The Ecologist: ‘Pro Science’ GMO, Chemical Pushers Funded by Climate Science Deniers

USRTK: Public Interests Groups to USA Today: Ditch Columns by Corporate Front Group ACSH

USRTK: Julie Kelly Cooks Up Propaganda for the Agrichemical Industry 

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Mind Meld; Spin Machine in High Gear 

USRTK: Questions about Monsanto, EPA Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits

USRTK: Monsanto and EPA Want to Keep Talks Secret on Glyphosate Cancer Review 

2016

The Hill: Serious Scrutiny Needed a EPA Seeks Input on Cancer Ties to Monsanto Herbicide 

USRTK: New Research: GMO Bt Crops Failing

USRTK: Trevor Butterworth Spins Science for Industry 

USRTK: New Data on Pesticides in Food Raises Safety Questions 

USRTK: FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate in Food 

Huffington Post: More Bad News for Honey as US Seeks to Get Handle on Glyphosate Residues in Food

Huffington Post: IARC Scientists Defend Glyphosate Cancer Link; Surprised by Industry Assault 

BMJ: Conflicts of interest compromise US public health agency’s mission, say scientists 

USRTK: Top Scientists at CDC Complain of Corporate Influence, Unethical Practices

Huffington Post: EPA Bows to Chemical Industry Pressure in Glyphosate Review

USRTK: Upcoming EPA Meetings On Glyphosate Drawing Scrutiny

USRTK: FDA Tests Confirm Oatmeal, Baby Food Contain Monsanto Weedkiller 

Huffington Post: FDA Finds Monsanto’s Weed Killer in U.S. Honey 

Davis Enterprise: Watchdog Group Sues UCD Over Public Records Request

Sacramento News & Review: Watchdog Group Alleges that Five UCD Professors Were Paid to Shill for GMOs 

Sacramento Bee: Watchdog Group Sues to Force UC Davis to Turn Over Public Records 

Politico: UC Davis Sued as Part of Industry Influence Probe 

The Hill: What is Going On at the CDC? Health Agency Needs Scrutiny

Huffington Post: More Coca-Cola Ties Seen Inside US Centers for Disease Control 

Huffington Post: CDC Official Exits After Coca-Cola Connections Come to Light 

Huffington Post: Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency

US RTK: ILSI Wields Stealthy Influence for the Food and Agrichemical Industries

Huffington Post: Monsanto Fingerprints Found All Over Attack on Organic Food 

Guardian: UN/WHO Panel in Conflict of Interest Row over Glyphosate Cancer Risk

Die Zeit: Glyphosat: Möglicher Interessenskonflikt bei Pflanzenschutzmittel-Bewertung

Horticulture Week: Questions Raised Over Independence of Panel that Found Glyphosate Safe 

ARD: Experten werfen Fachgremium Wirtschaftsnähe vor

US RTK: Conflicts of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

STAT News: Disney, Fearing a Scandal, Tries to Press Journal to Withdraw Research Paper

Inverse: Disney Parks Food Study Shows the Problems with Corporate Science, Not Hot Dogs

Marion Nestle: The strange story of my accepted but yet-to-be published commentary on Disney-funded study gets stranger

WBEZ: Why Didn’t an Illinois Professor Have to Disclose GMO Funding

US RTK: Following an Email Trail: How a Public University Professor Collaborated on a Corporate PR Campaign

Huffington Post: Monsanto’s Media Machine Comes to Washington

Interview with Carey Gillam: Peeling Back the Curtain on Monsanto

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Washington Post’s Food Columnist Goes to Bat for Monsanto – Again

2015

New York Times: Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show

Boston Globe: Harvard Professor Failed to Disclose Monsanto Connection in Paper Touting GMOs

Mother Jones: These Emails Show Monsanto Leaning on Professors to Fight the GMO PR War

Bloomberg: How Monsanto Mobilized Academics to Pen Articles Supporting GMOs

Global News: Documents Reveal Canadian Teenager Target of GMO Lobby

BuzzFeed: Seed Money: True Confessions of a GMO Promoter

Alternet: How Monsanto Solicited Academics to Bolster Their Pro-GMO Propaganda

Harvard Crimson: Prof Failed To Disclose Connection to Company in Paper

Saskatoon Star Phoenix: Group Questions U of S Prof’s Monsanto Link

The Intercept: Jeb Bush Campaign Manager Helped Big Pharma Beat Back Anti-Meth Lab Legislation

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: Buckraking on the Food Beat: When Is It a Conflict of Interest?

Commentary about freedom of information and disclosure  

The Hill: How Freedom Falls: Broken FOIA Far From Healing as US Agencies Cheat Public

Los Angeles Times: In Science, Follow the Money – If You Can 

New York Times: Scientists, Give Up Your Emails

Nature Biotechnology: Standing Up for Transparency

Ralph Nader: Monsanto and its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information

Further reading

Seedy Business: What Big Food Is Hiding With Its Slick PR Campaign on GMOs

An Open Letter to Professor Kevin Folta on FOIA Requests

Background on Ketchum, the PR firm that runs GMO Answers

GMO Answers is a Marketing and PR Website for GMO Companies

Spinning Food: How Food Industry Front Groups and Covert Communications Are Shaping the Story of Food

USRTK Short Report: Journalists Failed to Disclose Sources’ Funding From Monsanto

Background on Jon Entine: The Chemical Industry’s Master Messenger 

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

The GMO Industry Doesn’t Want You to See This Video

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In this video, the GMO industry’s main PR firm, Ketchum, brags about how it spun the media on GMO issues, and how it snoops on the social media accounts of people concerned about GMOs.

The video was just taken down after we called attention to it, probably because it’s embarrassing to Ketchum and the agrichemical industry.  But we’ve put it up again, so that you can see it.

Ketchum is a fascinating PR firm.  In addition to advocating for GMOs, they are also Russia’s PR firm*.  We Americans don’t trust them when they speak for Russia and President Putin, so why should we trust them when they speak for GMOs?

Ketchum was also apparently involved in an espionage effort against nonprofit organizations concerned with GMOs.

Please do spread the word about this video.  Thanks!

*[Update: Ketchum PR announced in March 2015 that it ended its partnership with Russia for undisclosed reasons. The Russia account was actually spun off  to fellow Omnicom property GPlus, as Patrick Coffee reported in Adweek. Ketchum’s service to Russia provides “two perfect examples of why the public at large distrusts the PR industry,” Coffee wrote. In its DOJ filing, Ketchum reported terminating its relationship with the Russian Federation on Jan. 1, 2016.]

U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance – key facts

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Summary

* Funders include Monsanto and DuPont

* Small farmers criticized use of mandatory marketing fees to promote “Big Ag”

* Other partners include BASF, Dow

USFRA is represented by PR giant Ketchum

Ketchum’s clients include the Russian Federation

Ketchum’s work for the Russian Federation include pushing propaganda for Putin, aiding in a campaign to have Putin named Time Magazine’s 2007 “Person of the Year”

* LA Times: USFRA-funded documentary “lobbyist propaganda”

Funders Include Monsanto, DuPont

As of 2011, USFRA was to have an $11 million annual budget.

The funding would come partly from mandatory marketing fees the Department of Agriculture helps collect from farmers, and from corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, each of which committed to an annual contribution of $500,000. [New York Times, 9/27/11] 

Organization Now Claims Budget is “Less than $12 Million,” But Plans to Expand

USFRA says that its current budget “is less than $12 million,” but “Over time, we expect our program budget to grow as more affiliates and industry partners join our movement.” [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Organization Claims a Third of Funding Comes from Industry Partners

According to USFRA, 32 percent of its funding comes from its industry partners.

“68 percent of our funding is coming from farmer- and rancher-led affiliates,” the group claims. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/faqs]

Partners Include BASF, Dow, Merck and Others

USFRA’s “Premier Partner Advisory Group” includes both DuPont and Monsanto, while its “Industry Partner Council” includes BASF, Cargill, Dow AgroSciences, Elanco Animal Health, Merck Animal Health, Syngenta and Zoetis. [http://www.fooddialogues.com/content/affiliates-board-participants-and-industry-partners]

Small Farmers Upset Mandatory Marketing Fees Used to Promote “Big Ag”

 In a January 2014 article, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that smaller farmers were complaining about the use of mandatory marketing fees, or checkoffs, to fund USFRA, claiming that they had to “fork over money to support activities and advertising that benefit agribusiness, but not necessarily those with small and mid-size operations.”

The article noted that USFRA’s affiliates and partners “are just the kinds of groups that are normally associated with Big Ag,” and that the articles on the USFRA tend to support industrial agriculture, including supporting the benefits of genetically modified crops.

But this caused anger from smaller farmers, including Mike Callicrate, a Colorado rancher who said he found it “very offensive” that USFRA was receiving mandatory marketing fees.

“The whole purpose of those checkoffs being made available to [USFRA] is to promote industrial agriculture that is driving the family farm right out of business,” Callicrate said. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 1/29/14]

PR Giant Ketchum Represents USFRA

In 2011, USFRA announced that PR giant Ketchum would serve as its primary communications agency. [Agri-Pulse, 3/24/11]

Russian Government Among Ketchum’s Clients, Helping Putin Generate Propaganda

Since 2006, Ketchum has served as the PR firm for the Russian Federation, helping the Russian government to place opinion pieces in American news sources, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post and MSNBC.

One of the op-ed columns, which appeared in the New York Times, was published under the byline of Vladimir Putin. [ProPublica, 9/12/13; New York Times, 8/31/14]

The New York Times reported in 2014 that “The company still works with Mr. Putin’s closest advisers, according to current and former employees of Ketchum.

The Times reported that Ketchum “said it worked with Time magazine to have Mr. Putin named the magazine’s Person of the Year in 2007.” [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Represented Russian Government-Controlled Energy Company Gazprom

Until recently, Ketchum served as the PR firm for the Russian government-controlled energy company, Gazprom. [New York Times, 8/31/14]

Ketchum Worked for Dow Chemical

Ketchum has worked for (and may continue to work for) Dow Chemical. [DC Court Records]

Other Ketchum Clients Include Drug Companies, Chemical Companies, Food Producers

    • Clorox Company
    • Frito-Lay
    • Hershey’s
    • Pfizer
    • Procter & Gamble
    • Wendy’s International

[O’Dwyer’s Public Relations Firm Database]

LA Times: USFRA-Funded Documentary “Lobbyist Propaganda”

In May 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a review of the documentary Farmland, that was made with the “generous support” of USFRA.

The Times review claimed the film “often comes off like lobbyist propaganda,” and a “puff piece.” While the documentary contains farmers who both support and oppose organic farming technique, the film “does not supply statistics or unaffiliated experts to substantiate or dispute any of the farmers’ claims and provide a broader perspective.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/1/14]