The food and beverage industry has been in the news a lot lately—but their PR teams may be doing more sweating than celebrating. With a spate of recent articles, food advocates and journalists have shined a light on industry’s efforts to undermine local control and stifle the flow of information to the public. It’s a battle with many fronts.
Food and beverage companies have been working to block soda taxes, prevent mandatory labeling of GMO foods and even encourage restaurants to stop serving water. In response, advocates are turning up the heat with campaigns that expose industry tactics—and new research reveals the influence of industry funding on scientific research. Here’s a quick guide to some of the recent action:
GMO Food Fights
Food advocates across the country have been pushing for laws that require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). So far, the industry has been able to beat back voter initiatives—but only by spending millions of dollars. In Washington, it took pressure from advocates and a lawsuit by the state attorney general to force the industry-backed campaign opposing Measure 522 to reveal it had raised more than $21 million from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Nestle, Monsanto and other conglomerates.
The labeling measure in Washington lost by less than 2 percent and the industry doesn’t want to keep tempting fate—or fighting labeling efforts state-by-state. So lobbyists are pressing for federal legislation that would make GMO labeling voluntary—and keep states and cities from developing their own standards, according to a Politico report. And last week, in Huffington Post, Kristin Wartman effectively exposes General Mills’ big announcement -- that Cheerios would henceforth be free of all genetically modified ingredients -- for what it really is: the latest push for self-regulation, and part of the industry’s larger strategy of profits over health.
“When it comes to food in America, it’s like the Wild West,” Wartman wrote. “The industry writes its own rules and the consumer is forced to make tough decisions in a confusing and unhealthy food landscape.”
Swaying Science (or trying to)
An analysis last month in PLOS Medicine showed the impact of industry funding on research into the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). In studies that were independently funded, with no industry backing, 10 of 12 found that drinking SSBs had negative impacts on health. Studies backed by industry found just the opposite: Five of six found no association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and health. “The general public and scientific community should be aware that the food industry has vested interests that may influence their conclusion,” study author Maira Bes-Rastrollo told the New York Times.
Coca-Cola Tries to “Cap the Tap”
In November, nutritionist and healthy food advocate Andy Bellatti broke the news that Coca-Cola was encouraging restaurants to “Cap the Tap” and dissuade patrons from drinking tap water. The California Endowment’s Anne Stuhldreher carried the “Cap the Tap” story to the Los Angeles Times with a clever Op-ed suggesting future industry initiatives to “shoot the fruit,” and “zap the yap” (of concerned mothers).
This month, advocate and public health consultant Nancy Huehnergarth revealed that Gatorade (parent company, PepsiCo) was marketing a mobile advergame that punishes players for choosing water over the sugary sports drink. The revelations spurred further coverage, including an article last week in The Verge.
“We all know that the role of the industry is to generate profit, and I understand that," Huehnergarth said. "But from a scientific point of view, I believe this is a deceptive campaign — and there should be meaningful accountability for that."
Anne Stuhldreher’s Los Angeles Times Op-Ed Coke vs. tap water: The smackdown parody’s Coke’s real life “Cap the Tap” program.
• Comment on online news stories and blogs featured in this alert – elected officials and other policymakers often read comments to gauge public opinion.
• Write a blog, Op-Ed or letter to the editor of your local paper in support of policy efforts to limit the impact of junk-food marketing. Read our tips for how to get published.
• Sign the Center for Food Safety’s Boycott Coca-Cola petition and tell the company to stop standing in the way of consumers who want to know more about their food.
Here some points to make in your comments, letters, blogs, and Op-Eds:
• Families have a right to know what’s in their food; communities have a right to set their own health agenda. Polls show 93 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. The food and beverage industries talk about personal responsibility—then fight tooth and nail to withhold information from the public. States and communities need the freedom to determine their own health priorities, without interference from industry lobbyists.
• When companies fund junk science, it harms the public’s health. It’s an old industry tactic to sow doubt and confusion to frustrate regulatory efforts. The 1969 Brown & Williamson Tobacco memo made it clear: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ (linking smoking to chronic disease] that exists in the mind of the general public.” Industry shouldn’t be allowed to evade regulation by manipulating data.
• If the food and beverage industry wants to be part of the solution, they’ll stop putting up barriers to health. If they care about the health of kids and families, and not just their bottom line, they will support science-based guidelines on marketing to kids and let local communities decide what kinds of foods and beverages should be marketed. If companies want to be part of the solution, it's time to walk the talk.
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