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Consumer Reports

Industry advocate flings mud at 'nanny science' in nation's cultural food fights | (KRT) There are many things that irritate Richard Berman about "the nanny culture," a term he coined to describe a loose collection of activists, lawyers and academics who like "to tell people what's good for them."

For instance, Berman hates the names of the left-leaning activist groups that he believes exemplify the nanny ideal: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

They may sound official and altruistic, Berman charges, but they are really extremists who use "hardball" tactics and "junk science" to scam the American public.

"They can call themselves whatever they want," said Berman. "You can have the ugliest baby in the world and still call it Tiffany."

But Berman's critics consider him a master of the very same game.

As executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom - a not-for-profit organization primarily funded by the food and restaurant industry - Berman has emerged as one of most outspoken critics of the recent rash of lawsuits and legislation aimed at fighting obesity by targeting unhealthy foods.

"It's just crazy," said Berman, 60, over a glass of red wine and raw tuna. "We're getting into the zone where hamburgers are like cigarettes. Every dessert on the menu will need a warning."

Using the offices of Berman's Washington-based lobbying firm as its base, the Center for Consumer Freedom employs razor-sharp wit and unconventional tactics to annoy, unsettle and some say intimidate its opponents in the battle of the bulge.

For instance, a television ad shows a lawyer cross-examining a 7-year-old Girl Scout for making his client fat on Girl Scout cookies. A fat calculator on the center's Web site challenges the government's definition of obesity and offers consoling words for those deemed obese.

"You're so fat you look like Russell Crowe!" it reads. "Russell Crowe? Yes, according to the federal government the handsome hero is obese (as is Tom Cruise)! Sound crazy? Not as crazy as this: Some anti-consumer organizations actually want to slap `sin taxes' on soda, snack food and restaurant meals to force you, Tom and Russell to slim down."

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Sean Faircloth, a Maine state representative who advocates nutritional labeling at restaurants and a soda tax, called the Center for Consumer Freedom's tactics "corporate McCarthyism" after he debated one of Berman's underlings on television.

"In his closing remarks, he called me `Comrade Faircloth,'" the Democratic legislator said. "I have to say I was a little taken back on 1/8being called3/8 a comrade."

"Food nannies" are only Berman's most recent target. As a designated pit bull for the food, restaurant and tobacco industries, Berman has spent more than a decade ripping into issues that few others want to touch.

He's waged war against increases in the minimum wage. He's argued against smoking bans in restaurants. He's even taken on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, campaigning against tougher drunken driving laws.

"His strategy is to attack us and make us try to correct his misrepresentations," said Dean Wilkerson, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who was tagged an "anti-alcohol nanny."

"We don't mind opposition on the issues. We expect that," Wilkerson said. "We just don't have any respect for someone who just wants to fling mud."

Ingrid Newkirk, who as president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is one of Berman's favorite targets, said she doesn't believe Berman's attacks are based on any particular ideology. Rather, she said Berman has simply carved out a profitable niche.

"He sets his sites on targets that he believes will make him a lucrative living," Newkirk said. "He knows there's a constituency that are afraid of such activists. So he scaremongers to them and picks up a hefty check for doing so."

Berman has his share of detractors in the food and restaurant industry, too.

"The Center for Consumer Freedom has the support of some food and beverage companies," said Gene Grabowski, vice president of marketing and communications for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "But it does not reflect the mainstream. There are some companies that take issue with (Berman's) tactics."

But Joe Kadow, general counsel for Outback Steakhouse, dismisses the criticism and argues that the Center for Consumer Freedom provides an alternative voice to activists groups who "are masters at getting a lot of press attention (with) dubious claims and dubious science."

The Center for Consumer Freedom receives money from more than 100 companies, Berman said, but he declined to provide the names of contributors, saying they don't want to be harassed. The center has not yet filed its 2002 taxes, which are open for public review; Berman said the organization collected about $2.7 million in contributions last year.

The center is one of three industry-funded, tax-exempt organizations that Berman operates out of his lobbying office, which has 25 employees. The Employment Policies Institute, for instance, is a Berman-operated group that pays for research papers supporting arguments against raising the minimum wage. The American Beverage Institute lobbies against sobriety roadblocks and tougher drunken driving laws.

Much of the money that Berman collects for those groups is paid to his company in consulting fees or to Berman in salary. For example, Berman's Employment Policies Institute paid him $656,726 in salary and benefits to serve as executive director from 1997 through 2001, tax records show. Berman did not receive a salary from the other groups.

The institute and other organizations, meanwhile, paid Berman's company $5,020,072 in consulting fees during the same five-year period, tax records show.

Berman said he doesn't believe there is a parallel between the tobacco litigation and the lawsuits that have been filed against fast food, as some of his adversaries have suggested. "I don't know if there are any people out there having withdrawal from cheesecake," he said.

Nonetheless, as the intensity of the opposition has risen, Berman said he has tried to curb the jokes and "nanny culture" catch phrases to emphasize the seriousness of the issues. But sometimes Berman can't help himself.

Referring to health advocates who have complained that people are getting fat because "food is too cheap, too available and tastes too good," Berman said, "It sounds like a `Saturday Night Live' skit. So is it supposed to be more expensive, harder to get and taste (terrible)?"

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© 2003, Chicago Tribune Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services