Center for Consumer Freedom

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

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The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) (formerly called the "Guest Choice Network (GCN)") is a front group run by Rick Berman's PR firm Berman & Co. for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco and other industries. It runs media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, doctors, health advocates, animal advocates, environmentalists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calling them "the Nanny Culture -- the growing fraternity of food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists, and meddling bureaucrats who 'know what's best for you.'"

CCF is registered as a tax-exempt, non-profit organization under the IRS code 501(c)(3). Its advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries.

Overview & history

CCF is one of the more active of several front groups created by Berman & Co., a public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman. A November 1, 2012 article in Bloomberg shows CCF in the following chart of non-profits created by Berman & Co. at the center of an IRS complaint filed in 2012 (used with permission):

11022012 Berman-kr-01.png

Based in Washington, D.C., Berman & Co. represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Hotels, motels, restaurants, bars and taverns together comprise the "hospitality industry," which has long been cultivated by the tobacco industry as a third party to help slow or stop the progression of smoke free laws. CCF actively opposes smoking bans and lowering the legal blood-alcohol level, while targeting studies on the dangers of meat & dairy, processed food, fatty foods, soda pop, pharmaceuticals, animal testing, overfishing and pesticides. Each year they give out the "nanny awards" to groups who, according to them, try to tell consumers how to live their lives. Anyone who criticizes any of the above is likely to come under attack from CCF. Its enemies list has included such diverse groups and individuals as the Alliance of American Insurers; the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; the American Medical Association (AMA); the Arthritis Foundation; the Consumer Federation of America; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; the Harvard School of Public Health; the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems; the National Association of High School Principals; the National Safety Council; the National Transportation Safety Board; the Office of Highway Safety for the state of Georgia; Ralph Nader's group, Public Citizen; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Over 40 % of the group's 2005 expenditure was paid to Rick Berman's public relations company, Berman & Co. for "management services. [1] As part of its operations, CCF runs a series of attack websites, including ConsumerFreedom.com, ActivistCash.com, CSPIscam.com (attacking the Center for Science in the Public Interest), Animal-Scam.com, FishScam.com, ObesityMyths.com, Sweetscam.com, PhysiciansScam.com and PetaKillsAnimals.com. [2]

Starting out smoking

Mr. Berman launched the Guest Choice Network in 1995. Its initial funding came entirely from the Philip Morris (PM) tobacco company. GCN was formed so as to appear not to be "owned" by PM; address restaurant owners lack of interest in PM's "Accommodation Program" and broaden industry appeal. According to a September of 1995 letter from Mr. Berman to Barbara Trach, PM's Sr. Program Manager for Public Affairs, GCN was designed to:

"Create an aggressive mentality by (restaurant) operators (to oppose) government smoking bans."

He proposed that PM form an aggressive front group to motivate restaurant owners to aggressively fight bans, while appearing to be acting on their own:

"...if you want to gain more ground quickly for the smokers' rights issue, the (Guest Choice) program must create a proactive, aggressive mentality by (restaurant) operators regarding government smoking bans..."

He described how hiding PM's involvement would allow the group take more aggressive action:

"Additional benefit -- if externally perceived as driven by restaurant interests, there will be more flexibility and creativity allowed than if it is 'owned' by Philip Morris. The American Beverage Institute, which opposes overly aggressive DWI laws, enjoys this profile."[3]

According to a December 11, 1995 letter to Barbara Trach:

"I'd like to propose to Philip Morris the establishment of the Guest Choice Network. ...The concept is to unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists. ... I would like to solicit Philip Morris for an initial contribution of $600,000." [4]

The purpose of GCN, as Berman explained in a separate planning document, would be to enlist operators of "restaurants, hotels, casinos, bowling alleys, taverns, stadiums, and university hospitality educators" to "support mentality of 'smokers rights' by encouraging responsibility to protect 'guest choice.'" According to a year end budget, Guest Choice planned to spend $1.5 million during its first 13 months of operation, including $390,000 for "membership marketing/materials development," $430,000 to establish a communication center and newsletter (which Berman promised would have a "60% to 70% smoking focus", $110,000 to create a "multi-industry advisory council," and $345,000 for "grassroots network development/operation."[5], [6]

PM complied with Berman's initial funding request for $600,000 and pitched in another $300,000 early the following year:

"As of this writing, PM USA is still the only contributor, though Berman continues to promise others any day now," wrote Philip Morris attorney Marty Barrington in an internal company memorandum dated March 28, 1996. [7]

Aside from PM, there were no other publicly-known funders of Guest Choice until its public launch two years later in April 1998. [8]

Tactics

Personal responsibility

While most food lobbyists rely on the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" to blame the obesity problem on the failure of people to act sensibly, CCF, in contrast, denies the problem altogether. Their position is to "defend" the very notion of personal responsibility by tying it closely to the All-American values of choice, freedom, and rugged individualism against the food police, militant radicals, and government bureaucrats who want to keep you from enjoying your God-given right to Big Macs, Marlboros, and Budweiser.

"Free to choose"

One of CCF's favorite strategies is to align the interests of food companies with those of the consumers. It portrays these two groups as "allies" and the besieged "victims" of government regulators, nonprofits, parents, and other food-industry critics.[9] By "consumer freedom," CCF means the "right of adults and parents to choose how they live their lives, what they eat and drink, how they manage their finances, and how they enjoy themselves."[10] The free-to-choose argument implies that advocates of sound nutrition policy are diametrically opposed to the interests of everyone else and that they are killjoys with no interest in enjoying food.

A related salvo is CCF's argument that nutrition advocates and other food-industry critics are infantilizing people when they give dietary advice. CCF produced a television commercial showing people trying to enjoy all-American pleasures such as ice cream, hot dogs and beer, only to be foiled by a hand that swoops down and commandeers the offending items. A voice-over inveighs:

"Everywhere you turn, someone's telling us what we can't eat. It's getting harder just to enjoy a beer on a night out. Do you always feel like you're being told what to do? Find out who is driving the food police at ConsumerFreedom.com.[11]

Marginalizing advocates

Part of CCF's method is to direct attention away from the substantive issues and to keep the focus on the messenger rather than the message. For example, CCF has created a website known as CSPIscam, whose sole purpose is to discredit and defame the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CCF dismisses CSPI's work as media driven and reliant on junk science to scare people into believing that the group is trying to take away their right to eat whatever they want.[12]

CCF explains its mission as fighting back against "self-anointed "food police," health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats."[13] An important aspect of such rhetoric is to set advocates apart from the mainstream. These labels are meant to conjure up caricatured images of 1960s-style activism, complete with flag burning, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.[14] CCf has also developed a website called ActivistCash that claims to "expose" the funding sources of various environmental and public health organizations. The site includes a list of "key players" in nutrition advocacy, including New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who is described as "one of the country's most hystieral anti-food-industry fanatics," a food cop with "radical goals."[15]

Implicit in CCF's food cop rhetoric is the idea that people who advocate for eating a healthy diet are motivated by personal agendas. They maintain a long list of people operating under supposed "hidden agendas." CCF is also accuses pro-vegetarian organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) of hiding behind an "animal rights agenda", though these groups are visibly and vocally trying to protect animals and readily acknowledge such. [16]

Selected campaigns (subsection)

See also CCF selected campaigns.

CCF & anti-animal rights/welfare

See also Richard Berman cares about animals: clients exposed.

CCF & puppy mills

See also Missouri puppy mills & Prop B.

List of targeted organizations

See also A Visit to the ActivistCash.Com Web Site.

Affiliated organizations & websites

In addition to CCF, Berman & Co. sponsors several other organizations and web sites. These include the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) and the American Beverage Institute (ABI). EPI is dedicated to keeping minimum wage low and opposing mandatory employee health insurance and ABI opposes drinking and driving restrictions.

Quotable & notable

In a 1999 interview with the Chain Leader, a trade publication for restaurant chains, Richard Berman boasted that he attacks activists more aggressively than other lobbyists:

"We always have a knife in our teeth. Since activists "drive consumer behavior on meat, alcohol, fat, sugar, tobacco and caffeine," his strategy is "to shoot the messenger. ... We've got to attack their credibility as spokespersons." [17]

In November 2001, the Guest Choice Network launched a separate web site, ActivistCash.com, which purports to expose the "hidden funding" of various activist groups that support animal rights, food safety and smoking prevention. In January 2002, the Guest Choice Network renamed itself the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF). In a May 11, 2002 San Francisco Chronicle article, CCF spokesman John Doyle responded to questions about nationwide radio ads put out by the group. He said the ads were meant to attract people to their website and:

"draw attention to our enemies: just about every consumer and environmental group, chef, legislator or doctor who raises objections to things like pesticide use, genetic engineering of crops or antibiotic use in beef and poultry."[18]

On November 16, 2004, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) alleging that CCF had violated its tax exempt status. According to the complaint, CCF engaged in prohibited electioneering; made substantial payments to Richard Berman and his wholly owned, for-profit Berman & Co. and was generally engaged in non-charitable activities. [19] According to CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan to Forbes:

"It doesn't seem to me that someone should get a tax deduction while they're writing public relations memos about how people should be able to smoke in restaurants."[20]

Mr. Berman set up CCF and a number of other tax exempt groups, which all seem to support messages which dove tail nicely with his industry lobbying. However, according to David Martosko in a May of 2006 interview with ABC News, this is simply "the way things tend to be done" in Washington. Furthermore, he has no idea, nor does he want to know, who funds CCF:

"I don't know the firms that send the Center for Consumer Freedom money. I don't want to know. It's not my business to know." [21]

Funding (subsection)

Contributors to CCF have included the Coca-Cola Company, Cargill, Inc., Monsanto, Tyson Foods, Outback Steakhouse, Wendy's, Brinker International and Dean Foods. See also CCF funding.

Personnel

Officers

The IRS Form 990 filed for 2005 lists the following officers:

Advisory panel

CCF also has an advisory panel. In 1998 it included the following individuals:

Media

Former personnel

The IRS Form 990 filed for the the six-month period from July to December 1999 by CCF (then calling itself the Guest Choice Network), listed, in addition to Berman, the following officers:

Contact

Like other Berman & Co. front groups, CCF is headquartered at:

Berman & Co.
1775 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20006

Phone: (202) 463-7110

FAX: (202) 463-7107

Email: rberman@new-reality.com

Web address: http://www.consumerfreedom.com/

Articles & Resources

Related PRWatch Articles

SourceWatch Articles

External Articles

External Resources

This article may include information from Tobacco Documents Online.

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Books

References

  1. "The Center for Consumer Freedom", Form 990, 2005, p.3.
  2. "The Center for Consumer Freedom", Form 990, 2005, Statement 1
  3. Richard Berman, Untitled letter to Barbara Trach at Philip Morris, Tobacco Legacy Library, 3 pp. September 5, 1995
  4. Richard Berman Letter to Barbara Trach, Phillip Morris, December 11, 1995
  5. R. Berman/PM planning document, PRWatch, December 1995
  6. year-end Berman/PM 1995 year-end budget, PRWatch, December 1995
  7. Martin J. Barrington PM Internal Memo, PRWatch, March 1996
  8. Mark Berlind Activist Cash.com, Tobacco Legacy Library, January 4, 2002
  9. Michele Simon Appetite for Profit pg 48
  10. About Us, CCF, accessed January 2010
  11. Advertisements, CCF, accessed January 2005
  12. Michele Simon Appetite for Profit pg 50-51
  13. About Us, CCF, accessed January 2010
  14. Michele Simon Appetite for Profit pg 52
  15. Marion Nestle Biography on ActivistCash, Activistcash.com, accessed January 2010
  16. Michele Simon Appetite for Profit pg 53
  17. Charles Bernstein The Zealot: Freedom of choice advocate Rick Berman preaches about DUI limits, the minimum wage and health care in the name of food service., Chain Leader, December 1999
  18. Carol Ness Hand that feeds bites back: Food industry forks over ad campaign to win hearts, stomachs, San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2002, Page A-3
  19. Crew Files IRS Complaint Against the Center for Consumer Freedom Alleging Violations of Tax Exempt Status, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, November 2004
  20. Seth Lubove, "Food Fight," Forbes, September 2005
  21. Mark Matthews Lobbyists Hide Behind Non-Profit Fronts, ABC News/KGO San Francisco, May 3, 2006