Doctor with apple.Conventionally grown apples topped the EWG’s list of the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticides. For years now, I have been hearing about the food industry’s influence on the annual conference of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) — the nation’s largest gathering of nutrition professionals — with some 7,000 registered dietitians in attendance. Last month, I witnessed it for myself and discovered the corporate takeover by Big Food was worse than I even imagined. 

While Grist previously covered much of this cooptation, one industry front group deserves special attention: the International Food and Information Council (IFIC). It certainly sounds legit. But if anything sets off my BS detector, it’s the word “council,” which is often used by corporate front groups to magically transform public relations into credible science.

A closer look reveals IFIC’s true agenda. On its board of trustees sits representatives from PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and General Mills, while funders include the likes of Coca-Cola, Hershey, McDonald’s, Nestle, and Monsanto.

IFIC’s mission is “to effectively communicate science-based information about health, nutrition and food safety for the public good.” Heartwarming. Under the “Food Safety Resources” section of its site, IFIC offers their perspective on such sticky issues as arsenic in food and “The Science of Bisphenol A.” For the public good, of course.

One well-attended panel at the ADA event asked, “How Risky is Our Food? Clarifying the Controversies of Chemical Risks.” I wondered: Who exactly is attempting to clarify the controversy? And while IFIC wasn’t linked to the session in the program, the moderator, Marianne Smith Edge, is the group’s senior vice president of nutrition and food safety. At no time during her remarks did she disclose IFIC’s corporate funding, although ADA rules are supposed to require speakers to disclose any conflicts of interest. The two panelists were Julie Miller Jones and Carl Winter, both academic researchers, apparently handpicked by IFIC for their industry-friendly positions. And indeed, each speaker downplayed the risks of chemicals such as pesticides, food dyes, and other additives in food, while practically making fun of organic production.

Miller Jones lamented that organics are too expensive and offered tired arguments about how risks are everywhere, so really, why worry? She also claimed that people automatically fear something because it is artificial. But, as Andy Bellatti, an RD in attendance, pointed out afterward, “The concern with artificial ingredients is over studies showing harmful effects.”

The lowest point in the session came when Carl Winter launched into a lengthy attack on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, an annual list of the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticides. Winter claimed the list wasn’t backed by science, resorting to outright mockery at times. This was the same theme Winter struck in an “Expert Perspective” article for IFIC’s newsletter this summer. His core argument is that EWG only considers pesticide residue and not actual exposure, which he argues, causes “negligible risks to consumers.”

Now reasonable people can disagree on this point, and I am no expert in pesticides, but it troubled me that the audience only got to hear one side of the story. Why wasn’t anyone from EWG invited to participate to defend their scientific analysis?

During the Q&A, several frustrated attendees challenged the presenters — the only time the audience heard any opposing viewpoint. Several who spoke up are members of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietary Practice Group (HEN), which represents a growing number of RDs who are challenging ADA’s corporate ties and making inroads, slowly but surely. (I recently became a “friend of HEN” to support this brave group of professionals challenging the status quo.)

I asked the moderator why IFIC had organized such a one-sided panel. IFIC denied any bias and defended its selection of presenters. Afterwards, an IFIC rep approached me to offer to put together a more balanced panel at next year’s event. I am still waiting for the follow-up phone call.

The pro-pesticide spin didn’t end there. A few of us took to Twitter during the session, which in turn inspired a hit piece on Forbes.com called “Cleaning up the EWG’s Dirty Dozen,” coauthored by Henry Miller and Jeff Stier. Both have past ties to the American Council on Science and Health, (there’s that “council” moniker again) a notorious industry front group that has attacked the likes of Marion Nestle. Miller is currently a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, two right-wing/libertarian think tanks that favor deregulation. Both are also heavily funded by corporate interests.

Here’s how the Forbes article describes what happened at ADA, although neither author was actually in attendance:

Winter presented his report at the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo this week. The food police on hand were outraged with his findings, but the best they could muster were ad hominem attacks on Dr. Winter and IFIC, such as, “Google Carl Winter and industry front group IFIC and you will understand.” In fact, EWG’s Senior Communications and Policy Advisor, Don Carr took to Twitter to call IFIC “industry goons.” So much for scientific debate.

OK, so the Google suggestion was mine and I’ve been called the food police before. But scientific debate? That was sorely lacking at the event itself, as Don Carr noted in his response to the article:

EWG was not invited to the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo nor were we even alerted that our Shopper’s Guide would be the topic of discussion at the event sponsored by an industry front group. We welcome any opportunity for an honest, open and transparent discussion about pesticides and our consumer guide — but that was not afforded to us.

Indeed, how about a lively debate on whether chemicals in food are dangerous? That would have far more interesting and useful for the audience. But industry front groups are not interested in real debate. IFIC only wants to present the spin that supports its funders’ economic interests, which is entirely understandable. My question is this: How can the ADA allow such powerful economic interests to control the message so completely?

A verson of this article appeared in Food Safety News