May 1 1997

Corporate Enemies, Corporate Friends

Did food industry 'put out the money' for attacks on nutritionists?

At a conference of PR flacks last November, Jeff Prince, formerly of the National Restaurant Association and now a private consultant, identified the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) as the food industry’s Public Enemy No. 1. The Center warns consumers about the risks of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, which kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, as many as die from cigarette smoking. This message has earned the Center the wrath of industry, which portrays CSPI as a puritanical “food police” determined to take the fun out of eating.

Prince urged CSPI’s foes to “put out the money” needed for a campaign that would undermine the Center’s credibility and make “the media understand how CSPI abuses science.” He further suggested that the attack be led by “third parties” because, Prince said, if outfits such as the National Restaurant Association or food giant Procter & Gamble are “out there making the case, nobody is going to believe them.” (See Joel Bleifuss in PR Watch, #4/96, and In These Times, 3/17/97.)

The Center had already been attacked in major newspaper and magazine articles when Prince made his presentation, but the anti-CSPI campaign was stepped up following the November conference. The assault is being led by former and current staffers from several conservative think tanks, several of which receive heavy funding from Procter & Gamble. Michael Jacobson, who heads CSPI, believes that the flurry of hostile stories about his group is no coincidence, saying that the “whole operation reeks of behind-the-scenes manipulation.”

Fake Fat in the Fire

P&G has special reason to target CSPI, because the Center has vigorously opposed government approval of Olestra, the company’s controversial fat substitute. Olestra not only depletes carotenoids, an important nutrient found in fruits and vegetables, but can also cause cramps and diarrhea-symptoms politely described by P&G as “anal leakage” and “fecal urgency.” (For a description of P&G’s PR and lobbying campaign for Olestra, see my article in Mother Jones, 5-6/97.)

P&G has a long and distinguished history of seeking to manipulate the media. A few years ago the company, which is the largest producer of disposable diapers, was sent into a panic as its market share was steadily eroded by makers of cloth diapers. The primary cause was public concern about negative environmental consequences of disposables. Some state legislatures were even discussing a possible ban on throw-aways.

P&G swiftly retained the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little, whose researchers produced a study showing that disposables were no worse for the environment and perhaps better than cloth diapers because of the detergent and energy used to clean the latter. Newspapers were soon heralding the study-“People Claiming Cloth Diapers Are Clearly Superior May Be All Wet,” ran one headline-and the company’s sales of disposables quickly boomed again. (See Cynthia Crossen’s Tainted Truth.)

P&G has also sought to sell Olestra to the media, and its fingerprints can be found on several of the stories that promoted the fat substitute and attacked CSPI. Though never disclosed by the articles’ authors, P&G and the company’s foundation-which doled out more than $17 million last year to a variety of health, educational, social service and cultural institutions-offer financial support to authors’ organizations.

Henry Miller of the Hoover Foundation, which receives P&G largesse, wrote a blistering op-ed attack on CSPI that ran in the Wall Street Journal (7/11/96), and was subsequently republished by the Washington Times (7/25/96) and the Cincinnati Inquirer. Miller lauded the FDA for approving Olestra and called the fat substitute “perhaps the most tested food in history.” He didn’t mention that P&G’s tests of Olestra were conducted with almost all healthy people between the ages of 18 and 44, hardly a representative sample, or that the longest consecutive testing period for children was one week, with kids consuming less than the equivalent of one ounce of potato chips per day.

Norman Ornstein, mainstream journalism’s favorite news source, joined the attack on CSPI with a column that appeared in USA Today (8/1/96). Ornstein belittled concerns about Olestra, noting that while the fat substitute can cause diarrhea, “beans can cause gas and . . . hot peppers and Tabasco sauce can give me heartburn.” Ornstein went on to complain about CSPI’s attempts to “intimidate” the FDA into blocking Olestra, and accused the Center of trying to be a “national nanny.” Ornstein’s byline revealed that he is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute-one of the leaders of the conservative crusade against government health and safety regulations-but failed to note that the Institute receives about $125,000 annually from P&G’s foundation. P&G’s CEO, John Pepper, sits on the board of the Institute as well.

Figures affiliated with two other corporate-backed think tanks have also penned attacks on CSPI. Last December 1, Sarah Durkin and James Plummer of Consumer Alert–a “watchdog” group launched by John Sununu that crusades for pesticides and nuclear energy-wrote an article in the Detroit News that called the Center a “food police,” and said it “aggressively ignores the ability of consumers to weigh the pros and cons of eating various foods without the uninvited opinion of nutrition activists.” The argument was strikingly similar to Prince’s advice that industry, through a third party, assert that “people . . . don’t need a third party interfering and making those choices for them.”

“Sloppy” and “Misleading”

CSPI was similarly attacked in the New Republic (12/30/96), in an article by Stephen Glass, a New Republic assistant editor who used to work for Policy Review, the journal of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Glass implied that the Center was the only opponent of Olestra, and said that its opposition was a “case study in how CSPI advances its puritanical agenda by using shoddy data to inflate claims about a product’s danger.”

Glass quoted none of the dozens of scientists and public health officials who have expressed opposition to the use of Olestra. These include Dr. Ernst Schaefer of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, who says of Olestra, “This substance has the potential to do significant harm,” and Jerianne Heimen-dinger, formerly of the National Cancer Institute, who says that its “adverse effects. . . . outweigh its potential benefits.”

The New Republic piece also accused the Center of being “sloppy” and “misleading,” citing as evidence two old stories from its newsletter, Nutrition Action. Glass said that a 1994 sidebar (5/94) had exaggerated the dangers of food allergies by using an anecdote from the Journal of the American Medical Association (9/9/88) about someone who had died after eating a single bite of a Vietnamese entree. “That’s not at all what happened,” wrote Glass, saying that the man “bizarrely . . . returned to the table and ate every bite of the poisonous meal.” A less bizarre interpretation is that Glass is misreading the JAMA article, which reported that the customer had, “after eating one bite of his entree[,] . . . refused the remainder of that dish . . . and then consumed the rest of his meal.”

Glass went all the way back to 1989 to find another example of CSPI’s “sloppy” work, citing a 150-word Nutrition Action item (3/89) that summarized a study that linked consumption of caffeine to low pregnancy rates (Lancet, 12/24/88). Glass attacked the Center for giving credence to the study, which, he said, reported that “would-be mothers who drank more than a cup’s worth of coffee had not gotten pregnant after three months . . . despite the fact that it takes, on average, six months to a year to conceive.” Again, Glass seems to have difficulty reading: The Nutrition Action item clearly states that the study asked participants about their caffeine intake after three months (and again at six months), and then looked at how many had gotten pregnant after one year.

The most recent assault on CSPI came in the March 1997 issue of Reader’s Digest, in an article that also followed the PR strategy outlined by Prince. Daniel Levine, the author of the article–“Attack of the Food Police”–focused on the topic of Olestra, though, like Glass, he talked only with supporters of the fat substitute. A number of the “independent” sources he did speak to had clear conflicts of interest, such as Barbara Rolls and Dr. David Allison. Levine identified Rolls as a professor at Penn State University, but didn’t mention that she has received research grants from P&G.

Allison was accurately labeled a researcher at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, but Levine neglected to discuss his position on the Nutritional Advisory Board of food giant Nabisco, a company that would love to use Olestra in its snack foods.

Also noteworthy is the fact that P&G is Reader’s Digest‘s third-largest source of advertising revenue, buying $9 million worth of ads in 1996 and $1 million alone in the issue in which the Olestra puff piece was published. Furthermore, Reader’s Digest‘s CEO, James Schadt, worked at P&G between 1960 and 1973. He now shares a seat on the board of directors of the American Enterprise Institute with P&G’s Pepper.

Ken Silverstein is the co-editor of CounterPunch, a Washington-based investigative newsletter.