Corporate documents show that the sugar and corn industries collectively spent tens of millions of dollars to influence public opinion, at times without full public disclosure, about the risks or benefits of using high-fructose corn syrup. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/12/business/rival-industries-sweet-talk-the-public.html?hp&_r=0
The public relations campaign by the Corn Refiners Association was the most extensive, spending more than $30 million since 2008, budget documents released as part of the lawsuit suggest.
The corn industry executives were determined to find a way to reverse the drop in market share that began as certain popular products, including Gatorade and Wheat Thins, switched sweeteners in response to health concerns.
Their efforts included spending about $10 million over a four-year period to help fund research being conducted by a Massachusetts-based cardiologist and health expert, Dr. James M. Rippe, who then released a series of studies disputing any special health consequences associated with the corn-based sweeter.
Such corporate support for product-based research is not unusual, and the industry’s support for this work was disclosed.
But Dr. Rippe was also paid a $41,000-a-month retainer by the trade group, the court documents show, to serve as an outside expert whom it repeatedly asked to send commentary pieces to local newspapers and dispute any claims that consuming high-fructose corn syrup in foods was any more risky than sugar.
For example, in 2012, Dr. James S. Marks, a senior vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which promotes public health, suggested that high-fructose corn syrup might be a factor in obesity.
“If you could reach out to Dr. Marks with your vast resources on H.F.C.S./added sugars as they are part of youth health, we would greatly appreciate it,” said one email sent to Dr. Rippe’s office from an industry executive.
The corn refiners took steps, at times, to keep their role in coaching outside experts a secret. An email from 2010, for example, shows they urged one executive from the International Society of Beverage Technologists, who was reviewing health issues related to the syrup, to be careful how he saved a computer document that the corn industry executives had edited, so that the industry’s role in helping craft his document could not be traced.
The industry also turned to a Washington-based advertising and public relations firm, Berman & Company, to secretly fund a public-relations campaign defending its products.
The firm was paid $3.5 million for its work, industry executives now acknowledge.
“As you know, our sponsorship of this campaign remains confidential,” said an email sent in 2009 by a staff member at the trade association to executives at Cargill, in advance of the release of advertisements by Berman & Company defending the industry. “We are funding Berman & Company directly, not the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is running the ads. If asked, please feel free to state the following: ‘The Corn Refiners Association is not funding the Center for Consumer Freedom.’ ”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in California in April 2011, centers on a claim by the sugar industry that television and print advertisements funded by the corn refiners were false and misleading in asserting that high-fructose corn syrup was a “natural” product and nutritionally the same as sugar.
Documents released as part of the lawsuit show that starting in 2011, it sent a total of $500,000 to a Washington nonprofit group, Citizens for Health, which calls itself the “consumer voice of the natural health community” on its website. The money was intended to help the small group, run by a lawyer named James S. Turner, to oppose the corn refiners’ effort to get permission from the Food and Drug Administration to rename their product as “corn sweetener” — a petition the F.D.A. ultimately rejected.
Citizens for Health says on its website that it has “over 100,000 supporters.” But the bulk of its support comes from industry sources rather than consumers: its 2011 federal tax returns show that the $200,000 contribution from the sugar industry that year was more than half its annual budget.
Mr. Turner, a onetime colleague of the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, said the sugar industry donations, which have continued through this year, have allowed him to better promote what he already believed: that high-fructose corn syrup is an apparent health threat.
“Since it came on the market in late 1970s, diabetes and obesity has grown roughly the same rate as its sales,” he said. “We believe in this issue and we felt it was really important the public know.”
Mr. Turner and a lawyer for the sugar industry, Adam R. Fox, each said there was no intentional effort to hide the sugar industry support for Citizens for Health. A tax return filed in 2013 shows the contribution from the industry association, and a website run by the group also now discloses the support. But earlier versions of the document and the website, even after the contract with the Sugar Association had been signed, did not reflect the association’s donation. But Mr. Turner acknowledged he could have done more to make sure the financial support was publicly known at the time it began.
Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and nutrition expert named in several documents as someone whom corn industry executives sought to influence, said the role both industries played was unfortunate.
“It is a plague on both of their houses,” she said, adding that she felt manipulated by the corn refiners industry, which used her statements to defend its products. “It is a disgusting performance neither should be proud of.”