The PR Push Behind Processed Food

October is proving a busy month for the country’s old guard food industries. After a decade of books and documentaries exposing the more unsavory aspects of how our food is produced, Big Ag and consumer brand companies are striking back with campaigns aimed at quelling the country’s growing disaffection with CAFO-raised beef, fake “fruit” snacks and sugary cereals.

In Washington, D.C., in recent weeks, members of the food and advertising industries urged Congress to dump a planned update to federal nutritional guidelines on foods marketed to kids. The draft rules, announced last April

by the Interagency Working Group, made up of representatives from the Food and drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are aimed at combating child obesity.

They would be voluntary, meaning the food makers could choose for themselves whether to incorporate them in their products. But big consumer brands apparently believe that tougher government recommendations will only exacerbate their PR problems with consumers after a decade of lost ground to farmers’ markets and other locavore initiatives.

Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has “denounced” the proposal as “radical” and potentially “economically disastrous” for the 10,000 consumer brands that the trade organization represents. At a congressional hearing Oct. 12 before the subcommittees of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, ANA Executive Vice President Dan Jaffe accused the Obama administration of attempting to “re-engineer the American diet by declaring war on many healthy products, including whole wheat bread, 2% milk, oatmeal, most soups, cereals, and thousands of others.”

Not that the administration seems to be fighting very hard for the new rules. Even before the congressional tête-à-tête Republican lawmakers had criticized that recommendations and rumors were circulating online that the Obama administration was close to abandoning them.

The industry’s impassioned defense of Cap’n Crunch and Kool-Aid as nutritiously sound choices for growing kids, comes a few weeks after a new umbrella group with a folksy-sounding name, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, launched an public relationship campaign aimed at addressing concerns about Big AG, … or, as a spokesperson for the group told The New York Times, to “reshape the dialogue.”

“There is a feeling across the board in agriculture that Americans have concerns about the food supply, and those are best addressed by farmers,” Chris Galen, a founding member of the alliance, told the Times.

But the “farmers” represented by the group include agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and DuPont. According to the story, members of smaller, organic and natural farming operations and food processors are skeptical that the $11 million campaign aims to do more than restore credibility to industrial agriculture.

Maybe you think that no amount of PR spin could make you forget that the cows that end up on the dinner menu are fed ground-up chicken and pig parts that, in turn, were fattened on such delicacies as brain, bones and spinal


But these sorts of PR campaigns have succeeded before in shaping public opinion on hot button issues and may very well get us to forget the horrors of concentrated animal feeding operations or that the “fruit” in the Fruit Loops is more figurative than literal.

Take the leaked 2002 memo by Republican consultant Frank Luntz that outlined the Bush Administration’s strategy for sowing doubt about climate change. Luntz urged Republicans to play up the notion that scientists were in disagreement, even while acknowledging that “the scientific debate is closing,” as most scientists were already in agreement that global warming was real.

Looking back nearly a decade later, it was a masterly piece of spin that couldn’t have worked out better for its architects. According to an August 2011 report by the polling firm Rasmussen, most Americans today not only believe there is a disagreement among scientists over climate change, they believe scientists have, essentially, lied to make their case. The pollsters conclude:

“The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of American Adults shows that 69% say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data in order to support their own theories and beliefs, including 40% who say this is Very Likely. Twenty-two percent (22%) don’t think it’s likely some scientists have falsified global warming data, including just six percent (6%) say it’s Not At All Likely. Another 10% are undecided.”

Swaying Opinions

Why do public relations campaigns succeed in convincing people of things that do not stand up to scrutiny? It’s important not to underestimate the smarts of the people running these spin campaigns, who use polling, focus groups and reams of marketing research to pinpoint the buzzwords and arguments most likely to sway us. But evidence also suggests the role of powerful psychological factors. According to a recent research paper examining public views on climate change published by academics at Yale University and four other colleges, we choose to believe facts that support the views we already hold, while ignoring ones that undermine our beliefs and values. From the abstract:

“The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.”

Perhaps that explains how politicians like Rick Perry and Sarah Palin can keep on denying that we have a problem even as their states are buffeted by what scientists say are clearly impacts of climate change.

Or maybe we’ve interrupted evolution, which is making us, as a species, less able to adapt to threats to survival. That’s the view of Steve Jones, a professor of genetics at University College London. He told the Mexican news agency, Notimex, that advances in modern medicine and technology have allowed each of us to live longer but has gradually reduced our ability to react to changes taking place in our environment.