Today we are more aware of where our food comes from and how our food system works. Despite having more knowledge about how the food industry operates, it is difficult to make changes to governmental food regulations and guidelines because of powerful food lobbies that fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. In addition to fighting on a political level, food industries have begun a far slimier campaign on the grassroots level under the guise of organizations that claim to be looking out for the little guy, primarily farmers and concerned consumers.
These organizations are called front groups. They are the pretty faces that agribusinesses and corporations pour money into to run PR campaigns around regulation and safety issues in which food industries have vested interests. Front groups don’t have obvious ties to the corporations themselves, making them the perfect vehicle to spew food industry talking points. While food lobbies overtly exert their power over politicians and government agencies, the front groups are out on the streets, fighting the good fight to convince us that high fructose corn syrup really isn’t that bad* or scare us into opposing the GMO labeling by insisting that the price of groceries will skyrocket.
The Center for Food Safety’s 2013 publication “Best Public Relations that Money Can Buy,” breaks down the tactics that front groups use to convince the public to sit back and relax and ignore all those pesky food justice activists. Author Michelle Simon describes their tactics as:
- “Astroturfing”- pretending to be a grassroots organization that represents the underdog—usually farmers, small business owners, or consumers
- Shooting the Messenger- discrediting advocates for reform by name-calling and referring to them as extremists
- Buying Science- paying for research to get the results they want, something that often happens subtly through how the studies are designed
- Scaremongering- scaring the public with unsubstantiated claims that food prices will rise or jobs will be lost if certain policies are enacted
One example of a front group is the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), whose purpose is to provide “food safety, nutrition, and healthful eating information” to help the public “make good and safe food choices.” You have to look a little harder to find that IFIC is funded by corporations such as McDonald’s, Kraft, Monsanto, PepsiCo, and Nestle. IFIC sends “experts” to discuss food safety issues panels, where they provide ”informative” food industry talking points without disclosing their affiliation to IFIC and their inherent conflict of interest.
The tactics that front groups use and the mere fact that they exist is deplorable. The only light of hope in these self-promoting campaigns of misinformation is that food industries felt threatened enough to stoop to this level. The food justice movement has done an incredible job whistleblowing and drawing the public’s attention to our broken food system, a system that often prioritizes the ability of food corporations to maximize profits over the health and safety of citizens. So what can we do to fight front groups? We can keep exposing the food industry’s dirty tricks by calling out blatant conflicts of interest when we see them, and we can keep ourselves well informed about the food issues at hand by reading multiple sources, always with a critical eye.
*If the front group The Center of Consumer Freedom did a good job convincing you that high fructose corn syrup is fine, read why Mark Hyman, MD implores us to purge our kitchens of it.