Dear Friends and Colleagues
Exposing Corporate Food Spin and Covert Tactics
Growing concerns and increasing scientific evidence of the negative impacts of agrochemicals, factory farming and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on human health and the environment have translated into skyrocketing sales of organic, sustainable, local and non-GMO consumer products in the U.S.
A new report discusses this trend and how the industrial food sector is responding with a multi-million dollar public relations “spin” campaign which crafts a narrative about food that is intended to sway policy and defuse public concern about the real risks of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and at the same time, undermine public perception of the benefits of organic food and diversified, ecological agriculture systems. It warns that this could jeopardize public access to safe, sustainable and organic food. The report explains how the food industry is deploying covert communication tactics to shape public opinion, including deploying front groups who appear to be independent, but are in fact made up of industry or PR professionals to promote industry's messages, and attacking the credibility of scientists, advocates, consumers and journalists who raise concerns about industrial food production methods and impacts.
The report provides recommendations on how to ensure rigorous scrutiny of industry’s messages and messengers. It calls on media institutions to provide adequate funding for investigative reporting to reveal conflicts of interest and to support their staff to report on the complicated issues involved in food and agriculture policy. It urges the public to be more vigilant in identifying corporate front groups and their representatives in media stories and to learn about food issues from trusted institutions and non-profit organizations working for the public good rather than from corporate sources. Meanwhile, environmental, public health and sustainable food advocates can counter the spin by providing clear, science-based evidence on the benefits of sustainable food systems and the negative impacts of industrial agriculture.
The Executive Summary of the report is reproduced below with the link to the full paper.
With best wishes,
SPINNING FOOD: HOW FOOD INDUSTRY FRONT GROUPS AND COVERT COMMUNICATIONS ARE SHAPING THE STORY OF FOOD
Kari Hamerschlag, Anna Lapp้, and Stacy Malkan
How do we know if our food is safe? How are the chemicals used to produce our food impacting our health and the environment? How can journalists reporting on these issues know when their sources are accurate? Consumers are asking more questions about how their food was grown and raised, and demanding more transparency, as a growing body of science has linked food additives and chemicals used in food production to problems ranging from cancer to bee declines.
These concerns are helping to spur record growth in organic and non-GMO food, which is in turn prompting major brands from Cheerios to Similac to Chipotle to reformulate their products. It’s all part of a trend that one food industry veteran recently described in Fortune magazine as “the most dynamic, disruptive, and transformational time” he has seen in his 37-year career.
“Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives,” wrote journalist Beth Kowitt in her Fortune article.
In this climate of market disruption, it is getting increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction in media coverage about our food system. One reason: A particular segment of the food industry — we refer to it here as the industrial food and agriculture sector, including biotech, agrochemical, pharmaceutical and agribusiness companies, as well as industrial livestock producers — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to manipulate the public conversation about our food.
Rather than responding to changing market demands by shifting the way they do business, these companies are trying to preserve market share and win key policy battles by using “tobaccostyle” PR tactics.
In this report, we show how the industrial food sector is using its deep pockets and new tools to shape media coverage of our food system — often without the public or policymakers realizing the story is being carefully crafted. While the food industry’s use of public relations to shape popular opinion and policy making is not new, the level of spending, the increase in the use of front groups to promote industry messages and the deployment of covert social media tactics to spin the story of food is unprecedented.
The growth in food industry public relations “spin” is in direct response to consumer concerns about harmful chemicals in food and the negative impacts of chemical-intensive agriculture and factory farming on public health and the environment. As demand for organic food and GMO-free products has grown, so has the backlash from an agrichemical industry that is losing consumer confidence and facing pressure for more transparency and regulatory safeguards.
As this report shows, these corporations and their allies are spending massive amounts of money on stealth communications campaigns that are designed to stall the growth of the organic sector, promote chemical-intensive industrial agriculture, and sway opinion leaders and policymakers on policy decisions affecting our food system. With the future of our food at stake, it is critical to raise awareness about the coordinated messages and covert communication tactics being used by this vast marketing machine.
The industrial food and agricultural sector spent hundreds of millions of dollars from 2009 to 2013 on communications efforts to spin the media, drive consumer behavior and advance its policy agenda. Spending includes:
• $126 million spent by 14 food industry front groups that often appear in the media as independent sources but are funded by and serve the interests of the industrial food sector. Six
of these front groups have launched just since 2011 (See Annex 4).
• These include groups like the U.S. Farmers and Rancher’s Alliance, whose partners include
Monsanto, DuPont, Dow and Syngenta; and the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, created by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association to fight GMO labeling.
• More than $600 million spent by four major trade associations — CropLife America, BIO,
Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the American Meat Institute — that promote and defend the agendas of pesticide, biotech and conventional food corporations (including but not limited to PR activities) (See Annex 3).
• Tens of millions of dollars a year on communications campaigns by the federal check-off programs for beef, corn, soybeans and dairy; as well as hundreds of millions more spent to market companies and products in this sector. For example, in 2013 Monsanto alone spent $95 million on marketing.
While this is not a complete tally of spending by all the industry front groups, trade associations, industry PR firms or companies shaping the public conversation about food and influencing policy, these figures attempt to convey the scope and scale of such communications activity.
The food industry is deploying a host of covert communication tactics to shape public opinion without most people realizing the stories are being shaped behind the scenes to promote corporate interests. This report focuses on just six of these tactics:
• Deploying front groups who appear to be independent, but are in fact made up of industry or PR professionals to promote their messages with consumers and the media;
• Targeting female audiences by trying to coopt female bloggers, elevating female spokespeople and promoting messages to disparage “organic moms” as elitist bullies;
• Infiltrating social media and creating seemingly independent social media engagement platforms, such as GMO Answers, that are in fact run by industry PR firms;
• Attacking the credibility of scientists, advocates, consumers and journalists who raise concerns about industrial food production’s methods and impacts;
• Partnering with prominent media venues on “native advertising” disguised as real news content that promotes industry messages;
• Using third-party allies to foster an echo chamber of carefully crafted talking points to frame the story of food in favor of chemical intensive industrial food production.
We created this guide to help reporters, policymakers, opinion leaders and the public know when sources and “experts” are more focused on promoting corporate interests and messaging than ensuring a healthy, safe, sustainable and transparent food system. Our aim is to shed light on how the industrial food and agriculture sector is trying to manipulate public discourse in order to defuse concerns about the real risks of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and undermine public confidence in the benefits of organic food and diversified, ecological production systems. We hope this report helps bring increased scrutiny to the food industry’s messages and messengers.
Although advocates and educated consumers — backed by powerful new research on the benefits of organic food and farming and the risks of chemical intensive agriculture — are using the tools of social media and organizing to push back against this propaganda, they lack the vast financial resources of industry. Left unchecked, the recent growth in industry-sponsored spin, misinformation and covert communications could succeed in misleading consumers and reducing demand for and access to safe, sustainable and organic food. In order to advance the policies needed to reform industrial food production and build a healthy food system for all, we need to expose industry influence and make sure that we’re hearing the real story, not spin.
Reporters and their audiences deserve to be able to trust the sources and information used in coverage of these important issues. We hope this report is helpful in revealing many of the key groups and tactics used by industry and assist in the quest for fair and accurate reporting on our food system.