Last night Rachel Maddow interviewed the notorious corporate public relations hit man Rick Berman, best known for heading the Center for Consumer Freedom and for starting numerous websites that pose as fact havens while he is most likely being paid by the corporate interests pushing high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, tanning beds, tuna fish and more. Why don't we know who is footing the bill? Because Berman orchestrates a cadre of non-profits to represent corporate political aims, and they do not have to reveal their donors. Maddow pointed this out at the top of the interview, and again after Berman was given the chance to correct the record and chose then to defend trans fats -- leading Maddow to prod him to reveal to her audience at least the fact that someone was paying him to take sides on the issue. It's worth watching, take a look here:
(You can see part 2 of the interview here.)
Last week she also discussed Berman's PR work, and played his group's latest pro-high fructose corn syrup ad, followed by an illumination of many of the other non-profit front groups Berman has set up on the internets to represent corporate interests. Check it out:
(Btw Rachel, "sugar" is not what they are pushing, its corn syrup -- they are trying to get you to confuse the two, but they are different. One is made in a lab out of excess subsidized corn and could be called a realitively novel food while the other is a plant that humans have eaten, albeit less often and in less processed forms, for centuries.)
This is not new. There will always be loopholes in transparency, and there will always be people willing to exploit them for pay. But these attempts to confuse the public are also why it is so difficult to create a more democratic food system in which the poor are no longer forced to eat processed food at their peril, while the rich profit on their waistline expansion. Maddow points this out too -- she leads into the discussion by describing what Berman is doing as "beneath the surface" of American politics, and representative of "what the country is really like and why it can't seem to change in substantive ways."
Indeed, these kinds of misleading PR and lobbying efforts also contribute to the intransigence in Washington. Take for example the unavoidable discussion of food safety, which rears its head every few weeks in light of the latest food recall. First and foremost, we need to have a food system that is safe for all to eat. Yet right now, the USDA doesn't have the muscle to recall contaminated meat from supermarket shelves. Meanwhile, the USDA serves to both regulate and promote the industry, an inherent conflict of interest that keeps Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a song and dance routine between those that want reform and the industry that wants no reform. As the New York Times reported on Sunday in a front page piece tracing a particular e. coli contaminated hamburger to its victim, a 22-year old dance instructor named Stephanie Smith, who is now paralyzed from the waist down, the USDA is indeed being pulled in two directions:
The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill's grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.
Tom Laskawy had this to say about the USDA's role at Grist:
Given the ability of the meat industry to use its influence, access, and power within the USDA to scale back any attempts to affect core issues like livestock farming methods, slaughterhouse line speed, and processors' procurement practices, it's hard to deny that its role as an industry cheerleader has left it hopelessly compromised.
Unfortunately its not just meat at the USDA, either. Check out this report [pdf] by the Center for Science in the Public Interest listing the ten most "dangerous" foods regulated by the FDA including leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters and potatoes. The point of the report was not to scare the begezus out of us and get us to boycott these foods, but to show both how pervasive our food safety worries have become and underline the fact that unsafe food is the fallout of our industrial food system.
Enter legislation. A food safety bill passed in July in the House, and a similar bill is being considered in the Senate. But regulation of the livestock industry and structural changes at the USDA are not even on the table. However, this story is not going to go away until we stop the use of band-aids in the food system, and get at some of the root causes of unsafe food.
In telling the truth about Berman's work, Rachel Maddow continues her work pulling back the layers of American politics to expose underhanded and manipulative lobbying tactics to the public. Here is hoping that she and the mainstream media continue to prod this story and give Congress ever more reasons to act to improve food safety. The health of millions of people is on the line.
Originally published on Civil Eats.