For one prominent analyst, anti-regulation is in his bloodline
Critics say P.R. firms and front groups put forth the money that supports views of the industry.
A few years after President Abraham Lincoln helped establish land grant colleges, an Iowa boy named James “Tama Jim” Wilson took office to become the nation’s longest-sitting secretary of agriculture.
He was the top man at the USDA when Teddy Roosevelt was pushing to break up the “beef trust.” But he wasn’t a true believer.
Wilson, in fact, was opposed to federal regulation of food companies.
Today, Wilson’s great-grandson, J. Justin Wilson, said he is proud to continue in his great-grandfather’s footsteps.
As a senior analyst at the food industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C., Wilson is a frequent critic of government regulation of the food industry and Big Beef.
The center, funded in part by one of the big four beef packers, is one of scores of well-heeled organizations whose goal is to promote, defend and preserve modern-day food production practices.
It is just one of a number of front groups, public relations firms and paid consultants hired “to influence public opinion, undermine science, and gain access to policymakers while maintaining the illusion of independence,” according to a report last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Wilson is unabashed in his advocacy for big agriculture and his criticism of the “nanny state” for trying to tell Americans what to eat.
Wilson calls himself a “frequent critic of government paternalism and he questions many of the “underlying assumptions used to justify government efforts to combat obesity.”
For example, he said, Big Beef is justified in fighting rules that require it to label meat that is imported from other countries.
“Consumers do not have a right to know what country their meat comes from. If corporations want to provide that information, fine. But the whole idea of it is mostly rooted in xenophobia,” Wilson argued.
As for “pink slime,” he added, it was unfairly slandered by “food snobs” who advanced “propaganda that passes for information.”
The organic movement? “It’s a marketing gimmick,” Wilson said. Some food companies use it to hide behind false consumer fears about modern-day food production practices.
Wilson even took a shot at the “foodie movement” in a clever tongue-in-cheek menu he assembled for his own wedding reception. The grilled lamb was “Swedish-massaged, ethically-raised Hillford-on-Staffordshire lamb.” He described a meat and cheese hors d’oeuvre as “Pennsylvania Danish-butchered Charcuterie with hyper-local, unregulated cheese.”
The center, whose funding comes from grants and tax-free contributions from food and restaurant companies, paid more than $1.6 million in management fees to Richard Berman & Co., a Washington lobbying firm, tax records show.
Berman, a lobbyist for the American Beverage Institute, also is the Center for Consumer Freedom’s president and executive director. He has repeatedly declined to reveal contributors to the Center for Consumer Freedom and other industry-funded nonprofits he has founded.
But according to a report earlier this year from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for Consumer Freedom was started with a $600,000 gift from Philip Morris, and has received funding from Cargill and National Steak and Poultry.
The Center for Consumer Freedom has often challenged food and diet advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies.
The center also has attacked other Washington lobbying groups that challenge Big Beef and factory food production systems. The Center for Consumer Freedom calls them “mad cow scare mongers.”
The center refers to the Union of Concerned Scientists as “a radical green wolf in sheep’s clothing,” which “routinely abuses and politicizes science.”
The center refers to Michael Hansen, chief scientist at Consumers Union, as a “self-proclaimed ‘expert’ on genetically enhanced food.” Hansen, a former USDA adviser, is a doctoral-level biologist and ecologist.
And they refer to Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University, as the school’s “anti-corporate, pro-organic food scold extraordinaire.” Nestle has advanced degrees in molecular biology and public health nutrition, and is former nutrition policy adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services.