Industry fingerprints all over Reuters' attack on IARC over glyphosate and cancer

Kate Kelland's article implies that the IARC considers almost everything it meets to be carcinogenic, with bacon the prime example. Photo: cyclonebill via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Kate Kelland's article implies that the IARC considers almost everything it meets to be carcinogenic, with bacon the prime example. Photo: cyclonebill via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
The Reuters news organisation has just sullied its reputation with a disgraceful attack on the WHO's specialist body on cancer, the IARC, writes Claire Robinson. Resorting to smear, innuendo and anonymous critics, it relies heavily on discredited industry sources including tobacco defenders in its attempt to undermine IARC's view that glyphosate probably causes cancer.
Kate Kelland's Reuters article implies that the IARC considers almost everything it meets to be carcinogenic - but she fails to tell her readers is that most of the criticisms of the IARC that she cites are from notorious pro-industry sources.

Reuters has published a hit piece on the World Health Organisation's cancer agency IARC.

It's titled 'Who says bacon is bad? How the World Health Organization's cancer agency confuses consumers' - and comes headed with a huge picture of sizzling bacon.

Kate Kelland's article implies that the IARC considers almost everything it meets to be carcinogenic, with processed meats and hairdressing the prime examples.

And Kelland claims authoritative sources for her criticism: "Experts from academia, industry and public health say IARC confuses the public and policymakers. Some critics say the way IARC considers and communicates whether substances are carcinogenic is flawed and needs reform."

But what Kelland fails to tell her readers is that most of the criticisms of the IARC that she cites are from notorious pro-industry sources.

The corporate counsellor and the tobacco defender

The first quote criticizing the IARC comes from Bob Tarone, formerly of the National Cancer Institute, now at International Epidemiology Institute (IEI).

There is no mention of the IEI's pro-industry bent, or that it used to list "corporate counseling" and "litigation support" among its list of services, or that it took money from a Danish phone company to produce a study that said mobile phones are not linked to cancer and leukemia.

Another critic of the IARC quoted by Kelland is Geoffrey Kabat, whose affiliation is listed as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Again, there is no mention of Kabat's connection to industry. But Kabat partnered with tobacco defender James E. Enstrom to co-author a paper, 'Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians 1960-98', published in 2003 in the British Medical Journal, which argued that second-hand tobacco smoke was less harmful than previously believed.

When the US Department of Justice settled its case against the tobacco companies in 2006, it cited this paper as a significant part of the tobacco companies' decades-long conspiracy to deceive the American public over the dangers of tobacco and second-hand smoke.

Prior to publishing the paper, Enstrom had received funding from the Philip Morris tobacco company and the Center for Indoor Air Research (a tobacco industry front group).

Kate Kelland's Reuters article implies that the IARC considers almost everything it meets to be carcinogenic - but she fails to tell her readers is that most of the criticisms of the IARC that she cites are from notorious pro-industry sources.

The asbestos apologist

The other critic of the IARC quoted in Kelland's article is Paolo Bofetta, who is identified as having worked for 18 years at the IARC but as now being at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the US.

There is no mention of the fact that Bofetta left the IARC in 2009 to set up a consulting company, the International Prevention Research Institute, that quickly took money to do work for industry. Also omitted from Kelland's article is the scandal that erupted after Bofetta co-authored an IARC paper on asbestos, published in the British Journal of Cancer in 2012. Bofetta had stated on the paper that he had no conflict of interest.

Yet according to Kathleen Ruff of the human rights advocacy group RightOnCanada, in 2011, at the same time that Bofetta was co-writing IARC's paper on asbestos, he was being paid by an Italian company to help it defeat charges of criminal negligence after the deaths of 12 workers who had been exposed to asbestos at the company's Montefibre factory.

The workers had died of mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. A watered-down admission of Bofetta's conflict of interest was later published in the journal as a 'corrigendum'.

According to Ruff, Bofetta testified in court that repeated exposure to asbestos doesn't increase the risk of harm, so only managers that worked at the plant in 1950s and 1960s should be held responsible. In other words, Bofetta argued that once you're exposed to asbestos, you might as well continue to be exposed for the rest of your life without the company being held liable.  

Ruff also accused Bofetta and his co-author of carefully omitting crucial data in a scientific review that they published. These data show that continued, increased exposure to asbestos does, in fact, cause additional harm to workers. Ruff concluded that the review is marked by "serious scientific and ethical flaws ... The article is biased and the bias served the interests of the company that had paid them."

Bofetta has also produced scientific articles in support of other toxic industries. These include articles questioning the carcinogenicity of dioxin and of diesel fumes, and the link between leukemia and formaldehyde, as documented by the journalist StĂ©phane Foucart in Le Monde.

In 2013 Bofetta was nominated to become director of France's top epidemiology centre, the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Public Health (CESP). A number of scientists, as well as the National Association of Asbestos victims (ANDEVA), complained on the grounds of his close relationship with polluting industries, as well as improper scientific and ethical conduct. Bofetta withdrew his nomination in early 2014.

Is anonymous 'observer' an industry representative?

Kelland's article also mentions "One observer, a specialist in food and animal science who attended the [IARC] working group on red and processed meats in 2015", and who "spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity". This person alleged that "the expert panel reviewing the scientific evidence appeared to aim for a specific result".  

The same observer is quoted as saying, "I expected that the science would be reviewed with a high level of rigour. But quite frankly, at the end of the 10 days, from a scientific standpoint I was really quite shocked."

There is no mention of whether the observer was a representative of the meat industry.

Glyphosate the real target

A second article by Kelland, positioned immediately under the main hit piece, makes clear what this attack on the IARC is really about. It's not processed meat or hairdressing, but the weedkiller glyphosate. The article is titled, 'Is your weedkiller carcinogenic?' and it paints the row about glyphosate's cancer causing potential as just "the latest dispute to blow up around IARC".

The article focuses on the disagreement between the IARC, which has named glyphosate herbicide as a probable human carcinogen, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which says glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk.

The implicit message of this pair of articles is: only people who are mad enough to think hairdressing gives you cancer would believe the IARC on glyphosate.

Kelland's article criticizes the involvement of Dr Chris Portier in the IARC's glyphosate decision. He is introduced into the article namelessly as "an adviser" to the IARC who is "closely linked to the Environmental Defense Fund", which she characterises as "a US campaign group opposed to pesticides".

Yet the article quotes a spokeswoman for the EDF as saying it neither supports or opposes pesticides, but is "strongly in favour of scientific research to assess how chemicals impact human and environmental health". Despite this, Kelland's misleading framing of the organisation as "opposed to pesticides" is allowed to stand.

While focusing on Dr Portier's part-time work with the EDF since 2013, Kelland fails to mention his long and successful career in prestigious mainstream organisations. In 2010 he joined the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Before that, he was with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) for 32 years, where he served as the NIEHS associate director, director of the Environmental Toxicology Program, and associate director of the National Toxicology Program.

But rather than engage with Dr Portier's distinguished record, Kelland prefers simply to have nameless "critics" say that he is biased due to his association with the EDF.

The Mysterious Three

Kelland mentions a letter signed by 94 scientists, led by Dr Portier, that was sent to EFSA criticizing the agency's assessment of glyphosate. Yet she fails to address any of the substantive points raised by the scientists in their detailed and heavily referenced letter.

Instead she quotes the executive director of EFSA, who dismissed the letter as "Facebook science ... you have a scientific assessment, you put it on Facebook and you count how many people like it."

Kelland also fails to mention that EFSA was heavily relying for its reassuring assessment of glyphosate on three industry studies that are considered 'confidential business information'. EFSA refused to make them public and also did not share them with IARC, leading the scientific reviews specialist Paul Whaley to dub them "the Mysterious Three".

Whaley argued that if the evidence for the non-carcinogenicity of glyphosate "is as strong as EFSA claims, then there is no reason for keeping the data secret. If it is not, then glyphosate may be a chemical which needs to be removed from the market because it poses a cancer hazard. Either way, we need to find out."

Orchestrated smear campaign?

In what looks very much like an orchestrated campaign, within hours of its publication, the Reuters attack on IARC and Portier was joined by two other pro-industry sources.

One was an article for The Times by Matt Ridley, in which he called upon IARC to "Stop misusing science to scare the world". Ridley is an anti-environmentalist commentator who loses no opportunity to hype industrialized agriculture and attack organics, or, as a key member of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, to argue against action on climate change.

A keen proponent of deregulation, Ridley's major claim to fame is having presided over the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in his role as chairman.

The second IARC attack came in the form of an article by Andrew Porterfield, which claimed IARC had been "infiltrated" by NGO interests. Porterfield describes himself on LinkedIn as a "communications consultant for the biotechnology industry".

His article was published on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, which is run by Jon Entine, a long-time public relations operative with deep ties to the chemical industry.

Reuters pieces don't even try for objectivity

The Reuters articles are crude hit pieces that make no pretence of objectivity. It's particularly unfortunate that Reuters published these articles in the guise of investigative journalism under its 'Reuters Investigates' tag.

Reuters previously had the courage to acknowledge that its coverage had not been sufficiently open about the industry affiliations of GMO lobbyists and to amend its copy accordingly.

Let's hope it has sufficient editorial integrity on this occasion to similarly amend Kelland's articles in order to make clear their use of pro-industry sources with massive conflicts of interest.



Claire Robinson is managing editor at GMWatch, a public news and information service on issues surrounding GM crops and foods.

This article was originally published by GMWatch.

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