Column

Why is a nonprofit shill for business interests attacking Chipotle?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that if you're being pushed around by a bully, "walk away and stay away. Don't fight back."

Chipotle has taken that message to heart.

Chris Arnold, a spokesman for the burrito chain, told me Chipotle has no plans to tangle with a food-industry front group that has run a series of ads critical of the company's health claims.

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"This is a smear campaign," he said. "But we've chosen to take a high-road position."

The most recent ad appeared last week in the New York Post. It said Chipotle is "scaring the public and tricking people" into thinking the chain's meat is healthier because it's "antibiotic-free."

For consumers, a more pertinent issue might be why the so-called Center for Consumer Freedom is determined to beat the stuffing out of Chipotle.

Although the organization presents itself as a watchdog group sticking up for the little guy, it's actually a shill for business interests that want to sway public policy while keeping their names out of the news.

Rick Berman, executive director of the center, acknowledged that the organization is funded in part by food and beverage companies. He declined to name any of the contributors.

"It doesn't matter who pays as long as what I'm saying is truthful," Berman told me. "And I'm telling the truth."

Not really, countered Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a true consumer watchdog group.

She said the Center for Consumer Freedom exists primarily to promote the agendas of the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco and energy industries.

"They appear to be on the side of consumers while really being on the side of corporations that don't want you to know they're involved," she said. "Berman isn't telling the truth. He's telling people what his clients are paying him to say."

So-called astroturf groups — fake grass-roots organizations — have been around for decades. They're a way for business and political interests to dupe the public with skewed facts or outright lies.

The tobacco industry pioneered what's now a cottage industry of phony-baloney front groups. As one cigarette exec said in a 1969 memo, "Doubt is our product."

Charity Navigator, which tracks the operations of nonprofit groups, says tax documents filed by the Center for Consumer Freedom show that in its 2011 fiscal year, about 60% of $2.12 million in spending went to a management company responsible for the center's day-to-day activities.

That management company was Berman & Co., the for-profit PR firm run by, yep, Rick Berman. He told me the 60% figure is pretty much unchanged today.

Think about that: Corporate donors to the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom can take a tax deduction for their contributions, most of which end up in the hands of a professional spin doctor.

Berman & Co. also runs the Employment Policy Institute, which campaigns against a higher minimum wage; the American Beverage Institute, which opposes limits on alcohol sales; and the Environmental Policy Alliance, which is committed to "uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups."

Each of these nonprofit organizations funnels money to Berman's PR firm to manage their operations.

"He's created so-called charities, and he's getting really, really rich off them," Graves said.

The Center for Media and Democracy last year released a recording of Berman addressing energy-industry execs at a Colorado resort.

Detailing various aspects of his playbook, he says on the recording that "you can either win ugly or lose pretty." This means "demolishing" the moral authority of public-interest groups and ensuring that opponents "don't have any credibility with the public, with the media or with the legislators."

Berman told me this isn't a big deal. "I've given speeches like that for a long time," he said. "The only way you can gain people's attention is by using these tactics."

Graves speculated that Berman is being paid by food and restaurant interests to protect their use of cheaper, highly processed ingredients.

Last week's ad targeting Chipotle said that "federal regulations are designed to ensure all restaurant and supermarket meat is antibiotic-free. Chipotle can't hide that fact."

Chipotle's Arnold said the company isn't trying to hide anything.

"Yeah, all meat is antibiotic-free," he said. "That's not the issue. The issue is how animals are raised."

He said Chipotle wants to help discourage use of antibiotics to fatten livestock or offset the dangers of crowded confinement pens. This can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of spreading infections from livestock to humans.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month called the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria "a critical public health concern."

Subway said last week it would stop using meat from cows, pigs and chickens that had been treated with antibiotics. McDonald's and Chick-fil-A have vowed to stop using chicken treated with antibiotics. Poultry powerhouses Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride said they'll cut back antibiotic use.

Berman said he singled out Chipotle because "they demonize companies that do not operate the way they operate. They say they're better than everyone else."

He challenged me to ask Chipotle whether the company will disclose to customers that some of its pork now comes from Britain, where the pigs may have been exposed to antibiotics.

"I'll bet they won't tell people," Berman said. "Chipotle is much better at saying what they're not doing than what they are doing."

Arnold replied that Chipotle has signs posted in restaurants acknowledging that some of its pork might be from Britain and might have seen antibiotics. There's also a website that explains the company's position on imported pork.

Berman declined to say what's next in his "Chubby Chipotle" campaign.

"All I can tell you is that it will be factual and it will be attention-getting," he said.

"And I make no apologies."

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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