The Gag Reflex

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

The Progressive magazine, July 1998


Immediately after FDA approval of rBGH, attorneys for Monsanto sued or threatened to sue stores and dairy companies that sold milk and dairy products advertised as being free of rBGH.

Drug and dairy industry groups formed an ad hoc network called the Dairy Coalition to promote rBGH. The coalition is coordinated by the D.C.-based RR. and lobbying firm of Capitoline/MS&L. Members include: university researchers funded by Monsanto, as well as carefully selected third-party experts; the International Food Iriformation Council, an industry-funded coalition that gives nutritional advice and attacks those who raise health and safety concerns about food for being unscientific; the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which represents the top executive of the departments of agriculture in all fifty states; the American Farm Bureau Federation, the lobby behind the movement to pass food disparagement laws that could lead to more suits like the one against Oprah Winfrey; the American Dietetic Association; the Grocery Manufacturers of America; the Food Marketing Institute; and other dairy and food associations at the state and regional levels.

The group combed news reports and pressured reporters and editors who ran stories critical of hormone-treated milk. As early as 1989, the coalition hired the PR. firm of Carma International to conduct a computer analysis of every story filed on rBGH. The analysis ranked reporters as friends or enemies. The Dairy Coalition used this to build relationships with friendly reporters, feeding them information that would lead to favorable stories about rBGH. And the coalition complained to editors about those who filed reports the PR. firm had deemed unfriendly.

Leaked internal documents from the Dairy Coalition reveal how journalists who do not toe the line are handled. In January 1996, dairy officials wrote Mary Jane Wilkinson, assistant managing editor of the Boston Globe, to complain about an upcoming food column by Globe reporter Linda Weltner. "On February 23rd, Samuel Epstein . . . made unsupported allegations linking milk and cancer. We're concerned that Ms. Weltner will give Epstein a forum in the Boston Globe to disseminate theories that have no basis in science." The letter called Epstein a scaremonger with "no standing among his peers in the scientific community and no credibility with the leading health organizations in this country." It noted that "others in the news media who attended Epstein's press conference or reviewed his study-such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post-chose not to run this 'story.' . .. USA Today was the only newspaper to print these allegations, and we recently held a heated meeting with them."

Another internal dairy industry document describes how the Dairy Coalition pressured USA Today reporter Anita Manning, whose article on the subject offended the rBGH lobbyists. "On Wednesday, representatives of the Dairy Coalition met with reporter Anita Manning and her editor at USA Today. When Manning said that Epstein was a credible source, the Dairy Coalition's Dr. Wayne Callaway pointed out that Epstein has no standing among the scientific community.... When Manning insisted it was her responsibility to tell both sides of the story, Callaway said that was just a cop-out for not doing her homework. She was told that if she had attended the press conference, instead of writing the story from a press release, she would have learned that her peers from The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press chose not to do the story because of the source. At this point, Manning left the meeting and her editor assured the Dairy Coalition that any future stories dealing with [rBGH] and health would be closely scrutinized."

A February 1996 internal document of the Dairy Coalition notes that "The Coalition is convinced its work in educating reporters and editors at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press led to those organizations' dismissal of Samuel Epstein's pronouncements that milk from [rBGH] supplemented cows causes breast and colon cancer. They did not run the story."

The same document claims that the coalition managed to knock prominent New York Times food reporter Marian Burros off the rBGH beat entirely: "As you may recall, the Dairy Coalition worked hard with the New York Times last year to keep Marian Burros, a very anti-industry reporter, from 'breaking' Samuel Epstein's claim that milk from . . . supplemented cows causes breast and colon cancer. She did not do the story and now the NYT health reporters are the ones on the [rBGH] beat. They do not believe Epstein. Marian Burros is not happy about the situation."

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