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Big-Ag Lies in Disguise: The Industrial Food Complex's Latest Marketing Tool

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Big-ag food industry trade groups are behind some of the healthiest and proactive sounding organizations aimed at misleading consumers, medical professionals and the media. A recent report written for the Center of Food Safety outlines the offenders. Do you know which groups are pushing the agenda of the industrial food complex?

The report, Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups, looks specifically at how giant food corporations and big-ag and biotech firms create these groups to win over consumer support. "Junk food companies, the biotech industry, and big agribusiness are all on the defense because the nation is waking up to the myriad problems our industrialized food system has created, from public health epidemics to environmental disasters to horrific exploitation of humans and animals alike," says the report's author, Michelle Simon, policy consultant.

Organizations that are front groups for the industry include the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom, and the Alliance to Feed the Future. "The idea is to fool the media, policymakers, and general public into trusting these sources, despite their corporate-funded PR agenda," says Simon.

According to Simon, groups like the International Food Information Council (IFIC) are misleading consumers with what's little more than tactical marketing efforts in disguise, "What sounds like a reasonable and helpful document is in fact the product of a well-oiled PR machine whose board of trustees includes executives from such food giants such as Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and Mars."

Simon says the groups not only execute marketing campaigns to support their corporate partners, but they've even infiltrated conferences including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a conference for registered dieticians.

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If you're thinking "what damage can an organization really do?"-- the harm can actually be quite extensive, particularly now as consumer concerns over food safety are at an all time high and are looking for more data and experts in food and agriculture. Simon cites a 2011 panel moderated by the IFIC: "the take-away message was not to worry about pesticides, and anybody who tells you otherwise is scaremongering and non-scientifically valid." For a dietician or anyone else working with people who may be suffering from a number of conditions, avoiding pesticides could be a crucial factor in speeding recovery, but attending a panel at a conference with credible sounding experts could make a health practitioner think twice. "At the 2012 conference last fall, IFIC was back again, with representatives on four separate panels, including dispelling any concerns about food additives," writes Simon.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent campaign to limit the size of sugary soda and soft drink sales was targeted by the Center for Consumer Freedom. The group, according to Simon, took out full-page ads in major newspapers "showing Mayor Michael Bloomberg dressed as a woman with the tagline, 'New Yorkers need a Mayor, not a Nanny.'”

"Big Soda also invented an entirely new front group to do its bidding called “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices,” which pretended to represent individuals, but in fact was funded by the American Beverage Association, the Washington DC-based lobbying arm of the soft drink industry," says Simon, "It’s a brilliant strategy when you realize that creating a group named “Coke and Pepsi Opposing Public Health in New York” just wouldn’t fly."

The biggest advantage to this anonymous group tactic says Simon, is that the brands avoid being called out for pushing their corporate agenda on public opinion and are able to maintain their reputations. "[N]ow more than ever new front groups are forming so quickly that it can be hard to keep up. And with deliberately confusing names such as Alliance to Feed the Future, Center for Food Integrity, and Global Harvest, it can be challenging to tell the good guys from the bad," she writes. "I often have to remind people not to confuse the industry front group Center for Food Integrity with either the Center for Food Safety or the Food Integrity Campaign. Front groups position themselves cleverly to try and confuse media outlets, which too often just assume the information is coming from a reliable source."

Download the report here.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Center for Food Safety

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