By Wenonah Hauter
Today we released a report on the corporate influence behind animal science research, which got me thinking about the role that science plays in public debates over controversial issues, particularly the ones we focus on here at Food & Water Watch.
When I think of science, I think of information that has been proven true from extensive research. Modern science explains the physical universe in real and concrete terms. It’s supposed to be unimpeachable. Yet over the years, corporations have co-opted the use of the term “science” to skew debates and influence public policy towards outcomes that favor their interests.
Corporations use scientific claims to sell the public on controversial products and practices such as GMOs; drugs given to food animals like Zilmax and rGBH; and fracking. They stand to profit if these technologies and drugs are allowed, so they use science as a cloak of validation, skewing public perception of these questionable practices, when in reality, we should be very skeptical.
While it might seem that the science on these practices is unbiased, corporations with a direct financial stake heavily influence much of the research that policy makers use to approve or reject them. Corporate Control in Animal Science, released this week, documents the great extent to which drug companies and corporate agribusiness shape the debate around their own products, authoring and funding journal articles at the same time that they sponsor and edit influential scientific journals.
While highly troubling, it’s not terribly surprising to learn that the animal drug industry operates like the human pharmaceutical industry. Both use immense resources to capture and control the scientific research around their products. It’s similar to the ways in which corporations influence agriculture research at universities, as we outlined in our report Public Research, Private Gain.
Take for example, the drug Zilmax, developed to build muscle in cattle, which enjoyed years of commercial success despite animal safety concerns. Zilmax was approved for cattle in 2006 based on industry science and only one animal safety study. In August 2013, the nation’s largest meatpackers announced they would no longer accept cattle treated with Zilmax because of significant animal health problems. Cattle were arriving at slaughterhouses already dead, or with missing hooves. Yes, you read that correctly. Merck, the company that manufactures Zilmax, withdrew the drug from the market to a loss of as much as $160 million a year.
There was plenty of evidence that Zilmax was unsafe, even before Merck voluntarily removed it from the market. As many as 160 foreign countries had banned the class of drugs to which Zilmax belongs. Nearly 300 reports submitted to FDA documented cattle that died or had to be destroyed after receiving the drug. Yet despite these obvious red flags, FDA continued to let favorable research from the drug’s makers Merck and Intervet guide its decision-making.
As our report shows, 78 published articles examined the effects of Zilmax on cattle, and three-quarters of those studies were authored or funded by industry groups or corporate agribusiness. Most of these studies focused on the commercial aspects of Zilmax, like how easily a diner could cut meat from an animal treated with the drug, or what the meat would look like. In our research, we didn’t find a single independent, peer-reviewed study designed to examine animal health prior to Zilmax’s removal from the marketplace. After Zilmax was taken off the market, a study published in the independent journal PLOS ONE revealed that cattle treated with the drug had dramatically increased mortality rates along with other animal health issues.
As the Zilmax example shows, when industry dominates scientific research, no useful counterpoint is offered that might expose the weaknesses or biases of that research. Because many journals have weak disclosure rules, lawmakers and regulators often don’t know that the literature they consult is paid for by industry or authored by deeply conflicted university scientists.
We can’t let executives at major agribusiness corporations be the only ones making critical decisions that affect our food system. Congress needs to tell FDA to revamp its process for approving new animal drugs, basing its decision on independent science. While they’re at it, the federal government should expand funding for animal drug safety research so reliable information is available in the first place. In the meantime, agriculture journal publishers should disclose the funding of studies they publish.
As we’ve reported with the phenomenon of food company mergers, and as I wrote in my book Foodopoly, a handful of corporations are seizing control of the food system. But we can’t let them take over science, too, or exploit the term for their own gain. Just as science needs to remain objective and unbiased, every level of our food system, including the drugs used in livestock and poultry production, should remain free from corporate influence.