In the fight for better food systems, we’re up against a massive corporate messaging machine. With trillions of dollars at their disposal, a handful of corporations aim to shape our most fundamental beliefs about food, while also marketing harmful products to our communities.
Giant corporations spend a ton of resources to push narratives that uphold damaging myths about the food we eat, our health, and environmental impact. They do so to drive consumer behavior and advance policy agendas that are ultimately harmful. But to challenge false narratives, we need to be able to recognize them. Here’s three tactics used by some of the biggest, most powerful corporations in the food industry.
Large corporations love quoting scientific evidence, especially if the evidence is bankrolled by those same corporate interests. This is part of corporations’ strategy to exploit scientific uncertainty and ‘manufacture doubt’, when faced with backlash or regulation pertaining to their product or service. This often involves hiring and funding scientists, partnering with reputable universities, publishing and amplifying favorable scientific research, and often concealing their involvement in biased research.
The sugar industry has a history of paying scientists to divert the public’s attention from the link between sugar and coronary heart disease, obesity and other chronic diseases. In order to avoid accountability for the obesity epidemic, Coca-Cola, in 2015, paid $1 million to a global network of scientists, the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) to carry out research on inadequate exercise as the main cause of the obesity epidemic. Emails procured by Associated Press revealed that Coke’s leadership was involved in shaping the GEBN’s strategy and development.
Coca-Cola also uses their in-house research institutes, such as “Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness” established in 2004, to produce misleading information disguised as scientific research. The institute featured misleading content on websites, focusing on the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in hydration and energy balance, while ignoring their links to obesity and metabolic disease. Though the institute is no longer active, Coca-Cola continues to secretly fund questionable research programs. Check out Marion Nestle’s blog Food Politics for more extensive research into corporate funded science.
Greenwashing is the corporate practice of conveying a false or exaggerated impression about how a company’s products are good for the environment, or making sustainability claims to cover up a poor environmental record. Greenwashing takes place on multiple levels. From using vague buzzwords like ‘eco-friendly’, or ‘all natural’ on packaging, to buying up small, environmentally conscious brands, or these corporations orchestrate global media campaigns to sway public opinion, get out of legal trouble and bolster their image as a force of good, all while quietly causing irreparable damage to the environment, and burdening working people and local communities with the cost.
In the early 2010s, just as the links between Monsanto’s pesticides and the decimation of the U.S. bee population were becoming public knowledge, the mega-corporation bought a bee research company, hosted an industry conference on bee health, and also hired a bee industry veteran to conduct research. They spent millions of dollars to find reasons to blame anything but pesticides for the honeybee collapse. This enabled Monsanto to avoid responsibility and rake in favorable media attention from national publications, all the while continuing to profit off a product that was causing massive bee deaths. Read more.
Astroturfing is when the original creators or sponsors of a message or movement are deliberately hidden to make it appear as though it originated from the grassroots. This creates the illusion of widespread public support for a policy or product even when there is none. The goal of astroturfing is to mislead the public into thinking that the position of the astroturfer is the most popular, and true view on an issue.
‘Save our tips’ campaign: The (other) NRA
In May 2018, the Lincoln Strategy Group launched the ‘Save Our Tips’ campaign in D.C. The campaign adopts the voice of tipped workers to oppose Initiative 77, a ballot measure that raises the District’s tipped minimum wage, on the grounds that it would lead to a drop in their earnings and loss of employment. However, the campaign was funded and designed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which has an annual budget of about $100 million and has and continues to spend millions of dollars against raising the wage and crushing paid sick leave ordinances so giant restaurant chains like McDonalds, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster can continue to profit while paying poverty wages.
The claims being made by the ‘Save Our Tips’ campaign were contrary to evidence which showed that raising the wage leads to higher take home pay for tipped workers, and does not negatively impact the restaurant business. In fact the ‘Save Our Tips’ campaign was advocating for the opposite of what worker-led grassroots organizations like Restaurant Opportunity Center were calling for, therefore compromising the decades-long struggle for federal minimum wage.