Front Groups: Big Food's Behind-the-Scenes Strategy

This blog is part of a series that explores the themes and issues raised in Farmed and Dangerous, a 4-part satirical web series exploring issues related to the food system and industrial agriculture. If you're interested in joining the conversation, please contact us at

It's not exactly earth-shattering news that, above all else, the food and agriculture industries are extremely protective of their bottom line. It's hard to blame them; after all, our current economic climate is one in which companies are largely defined by their quarterly reports. Despite public proclamations of prioritizing health and wellness, Big Food's top alliance is with its shareholders.

At the same time, industry is also highly aware that public perception of its brands is paramount to success. And so the quandary appears: what is a Big Food big-time player to do if they want to maintain an image of "being part of the solution" (especially in these times of high scrutiny from nutrition and public health advocates) while simultaneously battling public health interests that can hurt your bottom line? Easy: create -- and hide behind -- front groups.

While Richard Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom is perhaps the most notorious and vicious industry front group, there are others worth pointing out. For decades, Big Food and Big Soda have taken a multi-pronged approach and helped fund a variety of these organizations and think tanks, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the American Beverage Association (ABA), the International Food Information Council (IFIC), the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), to name a few.

GMA and FMI were behind 2011′s "Facts Up Front," a front-of-package labeling scheme that was framed as "helping consumers make better choices," but simply promoted highly processed products. IFIC and ILSI, meanwhile, have ties to various health organizations. Both receive funding from the likes of McDonald's, Monsanto and Coca-Cola, and are well-know for infiltrating nutrition groups under the guise of communicating "objective science" (which, coincidentally, paints highly processed foods as safe and nutritious and discredits any research that raises concern about sugar, artificial preservatives, and highly processed oils). IFIC"s latest target was the upcoming documentary Fed Up, which highlights the food industry's role in helping create the current public health crisis.

Over the past decade, food and agriculture front groups have proliferated as new public health policies come into place. In the past two months alone, an anti-GMO labeling group -- Coalition for Safe Affordable Food, an anti soda-tax front group --The Coalition for an Affordable City, and a pro subtherapeutic antibiotic front group -- Keep Food Affordable have formed. The modus operandis is the tried and true, "we care about consumers' right to affordable food;" their intentions, of course, are to keep industry as unaccountable as possible.

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported on the sugar vs. high fructose corn syrup lawsuit, uncovering even more of the food industry's covert and dirty tactics at influencing policy and public opinion in the process: "Washington-based groups and academic experts frequently become extensions of corporate lobbying campaigns as rival industries use them to try to inflict damage on their competitors or defend their reputations against such assaults."

Another recent New York Times article also illustrated how industry attempts to sway policy by creating "economic research centers" that are meant to defend industry interests (i.e.: preventing minimum wage from increasing). For instance, the Employment Policies Institute -- which has released academic reports warning that increasing the minimum wage would increase poverty and unemployment -- "is run by a public relations firm that also represents the restaurant industry, as part of a tightly coordinated effort to defeat the minimum wage increase that the White House and Democrats in Congress have pushed for."

The New Yorker also recently featured a fascinating and disturbing piece on how industry systematically undermines, discredits, and attacks researchers who speak out on the dangers of their products (in this particular case, Big Ag felt threatened by a reputable scientists who shared rightful concerns about atrazine).

It is crucial for public health and nutrition advocates to pay attention to what front groups do (and to be aware of who funds them) in order to gain true insight into Big Food and Big Ag's real intentions, especially. More often than not, it becomes clear that industry's actions are not about being part of the solution, but rather setting up obstacles to help protect their bottom line.

Farmed and Dangerous was produced by Chipotle and production company Piro. Chipotle is the sponsor for the Food For Thought initiative.