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Afraid of Food Activists, Big Food Is Increasingly Using Dirty Tricks

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Officially, Big Food is not worried about the small number of “fringe” food activists who object to cruel, unhealthful and environmentally destructive products. But unofficially, it is a different story. American Egg Board CEO Joanne Ivy stepped down in apparent disgrace this fall when a 2013 email she wrote to a consultant saying the board was accepting “your offer to make that phone call to keep Just Mayo off Whole Foods shelves,” was revealed. Just Mayo is an egg-free and vegan product from San Francisco start-up Hampton Creek. Whole Foods still sells it.

Why is Ivy’s attempt to quash competition reason to step down? As a USDA commodity “checkoff” program, the egg board is a quasi-government agency not supposed to be playing dirty retail tricks.

US egg producers themselves have also been caught playing dirty tricks. To block growing public outrage over the profit-driven cruel practices of debeaking and forced molting of chickens, United Egg Producers (the trade group that represents 85 percent of US egg producers and 180 egg farms) rolled out an “Animal Care Certified” logo ten years ago to assure consumers that its members’ eggs were produced humanely.

The problem was–it wasn’t true. In 2005, the Better Business Bureau ruled that the label was misleading, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) demanded that the label read not “Care Certified” but “United Egg Producers Certified,” clarifying that there was no third party certification involved. United Egg Producers was also fined $100,000 and made to sign an agreement with attorneys general in sixteen states to settle the false advertising claims.

Statements from the dairy industry including its checkoff arm are also misleading. In addition to claiming milk helps fight breast cancer (that’s news to oncologists) the Fluid Milk Board told Congress a few years ago it was promoting milk to address “the high incidence of high blood pressure among African Americans.” It also said being lactose-intolerant was no reason to abstain from milk and even called milk a diet food which drew it government censure. In 2007, the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection directed milk promoters to stop the weight-loss claims “until further research provides stronger, more conclusive evidence of an association between dairy consumption and weight loss.”

Susan Ruland, National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board spokesperson, objected. “There’s a strong body of scientific evidence that demonstrates a connection between dairy and weight loss,” she said. After the FTC clampdown, ads claimed that low-fat dairy products do not necessarily add weight and may have “certain nutrients that can help consumers meet dietary requirements”–pretty much the definition of “food.”

Then the ads went negative and bashed the competition. “Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are now the leading source of calories in a teen’s diet and these nutrient-void beverages are increasingly taking the place of milk,” they charged.

Big Food also is known to plant phony “science” in journals. A few years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association admitted authors of an article arguing for a higher recommended dietary allowance of protein were, in fact, industry operatives. Sharon L. Miller was “formerly employed by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association,” and author Robert R. Wolfe, PhD, received money from the Egg Nutrition Center, the National Dairy Council, the National Pork Board, and the Beef Checkoff through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said a correction. Miller’s email address, was, in fact was smiller@beef.org, which should might have been the JAMA editors’ first tip-off.

Wolfe leads a tireless crusade for more meat and milk in the US diet as Director of the Center for Translational Research in Aging and Longevity at the University of Arkansas—with much published research funded by Big Food.

Of course Big Food’s biggest dirty retail trick is its Ag Gag laws launched in many states to make it illegal to film and document farm conditions. Even members of the press could be charged with a crime for receiving photos or video from farm operations. Ag Gag laws are clear violations of the freedom of the press and in Idaho were found unconstitutional.

Officially, Big Food calls food activists who demand humane and transparent products are a “fringe” group. Unofficially, it is running scared.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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