IN THE NEWS: Farming Critics Fault Industry's Influence

IN THE NEWS: On APR 30, 2008

The authors of a major study that criticizes industrial farming said the agriculture industry is exerting "significant influence" on academic research as Congress weighs how to respond to an unprecedented series of food-safety recalls.

The report, by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, calls for broader regulation of industrial livestock and poultry farming, including restrictions on using antibiotics for growth promotion.

The study's authors said their experience in putting together the report, which took two years and cost $3.4 million, suggests the farm industry has power to shape debate over regulation.

"We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation and enforcement," Robert Martin, executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, wrote in the 112-page report.

Mr. Martin said industry representatives tried to block his research team's access to farms.

Kay Johnson Smith, executive vice president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said she told Mr. Martin he and his staff wouldn't be welcome on the farms because there wasn't enough industry representation on the commission. The Alexandria, Va., alliance is an advocacy group whose funding sources include agricultural producers and food businesses. The parties later agreed to visit the operations together, on tours arranged by the industry alliance.

Farms housing thousands of hogs or chickens have become targets of criticism from groups concerned about their impact on the environment and public health.

The Pew/Hopkins study was compiled by researchers drawn mostly from university agriculture departments. Industry representatives have questioned the project in emails, newsletters and presentations, and continued their criticism Tuesday.

Philip Lobo, a spokesman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, rejected the notion that the industry is unduly influencing academic research. "Making allegations without pointing out specific instances is certainly much easier than pointing to true examples of bias in research," he said.

Mr. Lobo said the group agreed with the report's recommendations for improved research and tracking of diseases, but disagreed with the recommendation on antibiotics.

Questions about industry influence on research have cropped up in the drug industry, including recent allegations in the Journal of the American Medical Association that Merck & Co. ghostwrote dozens of academic studies in violation of scientific publishing ethics. Merck has denied any impropriety.

In the arena of agriculture and food safety, the food and farm industries are funding a greater proportion of research. Two-thirds of U.S. research and development money comes from industry and slightly less than a third from the federal government, according to the National Science Foundation. That compares with 1981, when industry and government funding levels were equal.

The Pew/Hopkins commission vetted more than 200 academics for a dozen positions leading its scientific teams. Most were disqualified or withdrew because of their ties to corporate funding, Mr. Martin said.

In one instance, the Animal Agriculture Alliance recommended, and the Pew commission invited, former Kansas State University animal science department head Janice Swanson to lead the team on animal welfare.

Ms. Swanson made what she describes as a "courtesy call" to Thomas "Dee" Likes, chief of the Kansas Livestock Association, one of several producer groups that fund about 10% of the university's agriculture department, according to its dean, Fred Cholick.

Mr. Likes said he told Ms. Swanson, "If the report came out real negative she could sure get some questions about why she participated."

Ms. Swanson declined the commission's offer, taking a minor advisory role. She says the reason was that she "had too many things on my plate." She added, "It's best, as somebody who's the face of a department, to probably take a more neutral role in this."

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