Center for Consumer Freedom
|Focus(es)||Represents the interests of restaurant and food companies|
|Members||100 companies and thousands of individuals|
|Motto||"Promoting Personal Responsibility and Protecting Consumer Choice"|
The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), formerly the Guest Choice Network, is an American non-profit entity founded by Richard Berman that lobbies on behalf of the fast food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries. It describes itself as "dedicated to protecting consumer choices and promoting common sense." Experts on non-profit law have questioned the validity of CCF's non-profit status in the Chronicle of Philanthropy and other publications, while commentators from Rachel Maddow to Michael Pollan have treated the group as an entity that specializes in astroturfing.
CCF has attacked organizations including the Centers for Disease Control, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, The Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and maintains websites devoted to criticizing them.
History and Background
CCF was set up in 1995 by Richard Berman, owner of the public affairs firm Berman and Company, with $600,000 from the Philip Morris tobacco company to fight smoking curbs in restaurants. Berman told The Washington Post that CCF is now funded by a coalition of restaurant and food companies as well as some individuals; according to the group's website it is supported by over 100 companies and thousands of individual consumers. Sponsors are reported to include Brinker International, RTM Restaurant Group (the owner of Arby's), Tyson Foods, HMSHost Corp, and Wendy's.
Guest Choice Network
The forerunner to the CCF was the Guest Choice Network, organized in 1995 by Berman with money from Philip Morris, "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 ..." According to Berman, the mission was to encourage operators of "restaurants, hotels, casinos, bowling alleys, taverns, stadiums, and university hospitality educators" to "support [the] mentality of 'smokers rights' by encouraging responsibility to protect 'guest choice.'" In November 2001, the group launched a website, ActivistCash.com, which compiled information gathered from IRS documents and media reports, describing the funding and activities of groups it opposed, and listed key activists and celebrity links. In January 2002 the Guest Choice Network became the Center for Consumer Freedom, a change of name the group said reflected that "the anti-consumer forces [were] expanding their reach beyond restaurants and taverns [and] going into your communities and even your homes."
In addition to Richard Berman, as of 2010, CCF directors included Joseph Kefauver, Daniel Mindus, David Browne, James Blackstock, Richard Verrechia, and Derrek Hofrichter. The group is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and as such does not disclose the identity of its funders. IRS records show that in 2007 the CCF paid more than $1.5 million to Berman and Company for research, communications, and other services.
Since 2011, the CCF's director of research is Will Coggin, who as a student activist at William and Mary ran an "affirmative action" bake sale and was associated with The Remnant, a newspaper that published the name of a woman alleged to be a rape victim. Coggin replaced David Martosko, a former radio talk show producer who worked for The Daily Caller and is currently an editor for the Daily Mail.
Its senior research analyst is Justin Wilson.
In 2002 CCF spokesman John Doyle described nationwide radio ads put out by the group as efforts 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."
CCF gives out annual "Tarnished Halo" awards to so-called "animal-rights zealots, celebrity busybodies, environmental scaremongers, self-appointed "public interest" advocates, trial lawyers, and other food activists", and its Guest Choice Network affiliate gives out the "Nanny Awards" to "food cops, anti-biotech activists, vegetarian scolds and meddling bureaucrats".
The CCF had posted a number of videos to YouTube until June, 2010, when its 'consumerfreedom' account was suspended for undisclosed Terms of Service violations. It posted the trailer for the children's movie Charlotte's Web, stating that the movie "encourages kids to 'say no to bacon' and print out stickers reading 'Tofu Rulez'" and links to groups it states are "extremist", such as The Humane Society of the United States.
The CCF criticizes statistics used by nutrition groups to describe a global "obesity epidemic", and in 2005, it filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests against the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to a CDC study stating that 400,000 Americans die each year as a consequence of being obese. After the CCF campaign CDC reduced its estimates to 112,000 annual deaths, leading the CCF to advertise widely that it had discredited the study.
In addition to its own website, www.consumerfreedom.org, the CCF operates several dozen websites targeting organizations and agencies working on social issues including animal welfare, fair wages, transfats, drunken driving, sugar, labor union activities, and mercury content in fish. One CCF-run site, ActivistCash.com, states it "provides the public and media with in-depth profiles of anti-consumer activist groups, along with information about the sources of what is called their exorbitant funding." The site features generally negative profiles of various groups it believes oppose consumer freedom, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Greenpeace, The Humane Society of the United States, PETA, the Restaurant Opportunities Center and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It hosts "biographies" offering negative portrayals of key activists and celebrity supporters of various groups. The site reports what it states are links between profiled groups and extremism, and argues, in general, that the groups profiled hold extreme views that are contrary to the public interest. It states to have examined 500,000 IRS documents in its profiling, listing—for each group—major donors, income and expenditure, key supporters and connections with other groups.
Other CCF-run sites include HumaneWatch.org, PhysicianScam.com, Trans-FatFacts.com, Animalscam.com, Obesitymyths.com, and CSPIScam.com. MercuryFacts.com and FishScam.com contain a mercury calculator that offers an alternative calculation of amount of a fish that can be eaten before getting an unsafe dose of mercury, calculated as ten times the reference dose recommended by the EPA. The CCF has also claimed (counter to research findings) that dieting and meal tracking do not lead to weight loss,.
The CCF runs ActivistCash.com, a website that states it "provides the public and media with in-depth profiles of anti-consumer activist groups, along with information about the sources of what is called their exorbitant funding." The site features generally negative profiles of various groups it believes oppose consumer freedom, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Greenpeace, The Humane Society of the United States, PETA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It also hosts "biographies" offering negative portrayals of key activists and celebrity supporters for various groups. The site reports what it states are links between profiled groups and extremism, and argues, in general, that the groups profiled hold extreme views that are contrary to the public interest. It states to have examined 500,000 IRS documents in its profiling, listing for each group major donors, income and expenditure, key supporters and connections with other groups.
PETA is also target of CCF advertising and publicity. The Center for Consumer Freedom is publisher of the website PetaKillsAnimals.com, which alleges People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals unnecessarily euthanizes animals in its care.
Initial funding for the original Guest Choice Network organization came from Philip Morris, with the initial donation of $600,000 followed by a $300,000 donation the following year. Philip Morris attorney Marty Barrington wrote in a 1996 internal company memorandum: "As of this writing, PM USA is still the only contributor, though Berman continues to promise others any day now." By December, 1996, supporters consisted of Alliance Gaming (slot machines), Anheuser-Busch (beer), Bruss Company (steaks and chops), Cargill Processed Meat Products, Davidoff (cigars), Harrah's (casinos), Overhill Farms (frozen foods), Philip Morris, and Standard Meat Company (steaks). The group's advisory panel comprised representatives from most of these companies, plus further representatives from the restaurant industry, including former Senator George McGovern, and Carl Vogt of law firm Fulbright & Jaworski.
Form 990s for the Center for Consumer Freedom are available for years 2002-2010 on the GuideStar website. For the last available year, 2010, revenues were $8.25 million, while expenses reached $8.8 million.
Acknowledged corporate donors to the CCF include Coca-Cola, Wendy's, Tyson Foods, Monsanto, and Pilgrim's Pride. As of 2005, the CCF reported more than 1,000 individual donors as well as approximately 100 corporate supporters.
Some of the CCF's various critics fight back. Labor groups pushing to increase the minimum wage have taken a tough line against Berman and his clients. The Humane Society of the United States,has carried out its own investigations of CCF and founder Richard Berman, and filed complaints about CCF with the IRS.
A review of Berman's network of non-profit entities demonstrated that more than 90% of the funds that flow into these tax-exempt organizations are ultimately being paid to him or his public relations firm.
According to The Washington Post, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, asked the Internal Revenue Service in 2005 to revoke CCF's tax-exempt status, alleging that Berman and his company had used CCF to direct over $7 million charitable money to himself and his company since 1997, an allegation Berman rejects. In its complaint to the IRS, CREW attacked CCF's claims that its advocacy campaigns were "educational" in nature.
In March 2013, independent nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator issued a Donor Advisory warning potential donors that "the majority of the Center for Consumer Freedom's program expenses are being directed to its CEO Richard Berman's for-profit management company, Berman and Company." This mirrors the findings of Bloomberg News, which disclosed that from 2008 to 2010, Berman and Company was paid $15 million from donations to his five nonprofit organizations.
The CCF has drawn criticism for having taken its startup funding from the Philip Morris tobacco company and for lobbying on behalf of the fast food, meat, and tobacco industries while claiming to represent consumers.
Some commentators have questioned the CCF's ethics and legitimacy. The president of the American Federation of Teachers referred to the CCF's founder Richard Berman as "a shameless lobbyist who has shilled for pesticide, alcohol and tobacco companies." A USA Today journalist said that they should change the name of their website to FatForProfit.com. Michael Pollan writes in his New York Times blog that the CCF is an astroturf organization that works on behalf of large food companies to protect their ability to sell junk food. It has also been criticized for its efforts to portray groups such as The Humane Society of the United States as "violent" and "extreme," and for its opposition to banning the use of trans fats.
Jack Reilly, a onetime I.R.S. lawyer, told the "New York Times" that he thought the Berman nonprofits could been seen as having been established to provide business for Mr. Berman’s firm, and thus were really commercial in nature.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has responded "If you are in the business of putting veal or beef on the tables of America, and slaughtering more than a million animals per hour, and making an awful lot of money at it, you are going to try to neutralize PETA or other animal-rights groups"
Following a CCF call for a retraction of a New York Times story about mercury levels in sushi as “bad science”, Newsweek senior editor Sharon Begley has criticized the CCF's interpretation of EPA statistics and critiques of FDA restrictions on tuna and other fish.
In February 2014, StopHumaneWatch, a website established to counter CCF's criticisms of the Humane Society, reported that the Humane Society for Shelter Pets, an organization Richard Berman established to channel funds to local societies while continuing attacks on the Humane Society of the U.S., had dissolved, without making any grants.
- American Federation of Teachers
- Center for Science in the Public Interest
- Center for Union Facts
- Employment Policies Institute
- Humane Society of the United States
- Richard Berman
- Restaurant Opportunities Center
- NYT Advocacy Groups Gain Momentum
- Dr. Evil Targets Humane Society
- Critical Flier Targets Humane Society
- MSNBC Rachel Maddow interviews Richard Berman
- 60 Minutes: Meet Rick Berman, A.K.A. "Dr. Evil"
- USA Today article on Richard Berman
- Preview of BusinessWeek profile on Richard Berman
- Washington Post article
- Berman and Company website
- NYT: Nonprofit Advocate Carves Out a For-Profit Niche
- Silver Jew Strikes Back
- David Berman of Silver Jews
- Berman and Company website
- An anti-Berman website that lists his projects
- investigative report on Berman and Company by HSUS
- "About Us", Center for Consumer Freedom, accessed December 22, 2010.
- Mayer, Caroline E. and Joyce, Amy. "The Escalating Obesity Wars Nonprofit's Tactics, Funding Sources Spark Controversy", The Washington Post, April 27, 2005.
- Preston, Caroline (March 11, 2010). "Nonprofit Group Attacks Humane Society Over Spending of Donations". The Chronicle Of Philanthropy.
- Pollan, Michael (June 4, 2006). "Attacks on the ‘Food Police’". New York Times, the opinion pages.
- PR Watch: Letter from Rick Berman to Barbara Trach, April 11, 1995
- Guest Choice Network January 24, 2002
- "About Us". Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved 2007-11-29.
- Sargent, Greg. "Berman's Battle", The American Prospect. January 3, 2005.
- Matthews, Mark. "Lobbyists Hide Behind Non-Profit Fronts", KGO-TV/ABC 7, May 3, 2006.
- Rick Berman (1998-06-01). "Food Cops Run Amok"publisher=Food Arts Magazine". Retrieved 2007-01-29.
- "Don't Even Think About Having A Drink". Center for Consumer Freedom. 2001-10-02. Retrieved 2007-01-30.
- “Latest Anti-Meat Study: The Real Story” Center for Consumer Freedom, January 12, 2005. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- "Scientists Denounce Scaremongering Activists". Center for Consumer Freedom. 2005-09-20. Retrieved 2007-01-30..
- Ness, Carol. "Hand that feed bites back: Food industry forks over ad campaign to win hearts, stomachs" San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2002. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- "The Fifth Annual 'Tarnished Halo' Awards; PETA, California Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Among 'Best of the Worst'" (Press release). U.S. Newswire. January 13, 2006.
- "Food for Thought"< Center for Consumer Freedom, February 10, 2000, accessed June 16, 2010; also see Gardner, Marilyn. "Protecting us from ourselves", Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 2000.
- "The Guest Choice Network Presents the 3rd Annual 'Nanny' Awards" (Press release). PR Newswire. February 1, 2001.
- YouTube videos
- "Charlotte's (Tangled) Web" Center for Consumer Freedom, December 7, 2006. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- Rick Berman Newspaper: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2005-02-23). "Industry salivates over new cash cow". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 2007-11-20.
- "activistcash.com". Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved 2007-11-20.
- Name of organizations can be deceiving
- Beware of the man behind the screen
- New Contest Seeks to Buy Out the Nation's 'Ten Worst Teachers'
- "Anti-PETA Ads Win Popular Acclaim". Center for Consumer Freedom. 2003-12-12. Retrieved 2007-02-12..
- "About Us: Peta Kills Animals". Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved 2007-11-20.
- Saunders, Debra J. (2005-06-23). "Better dead than fed, PETA says". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-01-20.
- PR Watch: Letter from Philip Morris attorney Marty Barrington citing initial funding for the CCF PR Watch, retrieved January 30, 2007.
- The Guest Choice Network Supporters; The Guest Choice Network Advisory Panel, December 1, 1996.
- 2002 IRS Form 990 for the Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- 2003 IRS Form 990 for the Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- 2004 IRS Form 990 for the Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- 2005 IRS Form 990 for the Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved on October 20, 2009.
- 2010 IRS Form 990 for the Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved on August 2, 2012.
- Warner, Melanie. "Striking Back at the Food Police". New York Times. June 12, 2005. Retrieved on February 11, 2007.
- Barton, Paul. "Poultry firms side with lobbyist in PR battle with animal-welfare group." Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. September 22, 2003. Retrieved on February 12, 2007.
- "CREW Files IRS Complaint Against The Center for Consumer Freedom Alleging Violations of Tax Exempt Status". Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. November 16, 2004. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- Seth Lubove (2005-12-11). "Food Fight". Forbes. Archived from the original on 2007-05-03. Retrieved 2007-11-20.
- Drajem, Mark; Wingfield, Brian (2012-11-01). "Union Busting by Profiting From Non-Profit May Breach IRS". Bloomberg.com. Retrieved 2013-04-12.
- Verlyn Klinkenborg (2005-07-24). "The Story Behind a New York Billboard and the Interests It Serves". New York times. Retrieved 2007-11-18.
- "Center for Consumer Freedom: Non-Profit or Corporate Shill?". The Humane Society of the United States. 2005-07-01.
- "Washington Report". Center for Science in the Public Interest. May 2003. Retrieved 2006-05-23.
- "Physicians' Group Responds to Smear Tactics by Tobacco, Meat Industry Front Group". Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 2006-06-23. Retrieved 2006-06-23.
- "What's in a name?". USA Today. May 4, 2005. Retrieved April 28, 2010.
- No-smoke.org: Center for Consumer Freedom. Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- Unti, Bernard. "Center for Consumer Freedom: Non-Profit or Corporate Shill?" The Humane Society of the United States. July 1, 2005. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- trans-fat FACTS.com Center for Consumer Freedom. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- Lamb, Gregory M. "Lead paint, cigarettes: Are trans fats next?" The Christian Science Monitor. October 12, 2006. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- PR Watch: "Trans Fat Spin Doctors Chart Legislative Risks" PR Watch. December 19, 2006. Retrieved on January 30, 2007.
- Sharkey, Joe "Perennial Foes Meet Again in a Battle of the Snack Bar", The New York Times, November 23, 2004.
- Would You Like Mercury With Your Sushi?