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Group seeks to 'train the media,' sell public on chemicals

The chemical industry may be finding success influencing federal and state governments but must do more to win the hearts of the American public, a leader for a new nonprofit group linked to a controversial political consultant said last week.

Joseph Perrone, chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science -- part of a larger tax-exempt group run by the Berman and Co. public relations firm -- said industry needed to mount a coordinated effort to paint the risks of common chemicals as acceptable to the public and boost trust in federal regulatory agencies that evaluate them.

CAS's prime speaking slot at the nation's largest chemical regulatory conference, known as GlobalChem, in Washington, D.C., was the biggest stage yet for the nascent organization, which opened in 2014. Perrone is a relative newcomer to the chemicals advocacy world.

Perrone's message is that customers don't trust chemical companies, and they need "a good PR plan, which is external to the company, which is a third party. Because, quite frankly, whether we like it or not, they don't believe you."

He recalled visiting the New York World's Fair in 1964 when he was 10 and described nostalgically exhibits like the "Wonderful World of Chemistry" and a booth about making nylon.

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Today, he said, companies have to deal with "advocacy groups fighting you on every front, between plastics and other chemicals that are in the environment and everything you use and see."

High-profile chemical skeptics include celebrities like Jessica Alba, the "Food Babe" blogger Vani Hari, and television doctors like Mehmet Oz and Joseph Mercola, Perrone said.

The new group's goal, he said, was to train the public and the media to present the risk of harm from chemicals in a way comparable to that of vaccines.

While some Americans believe vaccines cause health problems, the broad majority "trust the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and their doctors that this is going to keep their child safe."

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 grandfathered in tens of thousands of chemicals in use at the time of the bill's passage. Those materials did not receive the kind of scientific scrutiny that new pharmaceutical products receive.

Industry must also "train the media" to question scientists more aggressively when those scholars publish studies flagging health problems with chemicals, Perrone said.

While the Food Babe may be an easy target, researchers at big-name universities are also fair game, Perrone said after his talk last week.

"I did my postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health," Perrone said. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't mind saying this now, but it's basically a school of Marxism. They are very, very left wing, and opposing viewpoints don't go over particularly well sometimes in a university like that."

Behind the new group

CAS is not Perrone's brainchild. Anastasia Swearingen, a Berman and Co. public relations official, launched the group, Perrone said.

It is part of a larger nonprofit, the Center for Organizational Research and Education -- formerly the Center for Consumer Freedom.

The Center for Organizational Research and Education, in turn, is part of a web of tax-exempt groups tied to Berman and Co., a firm run by former lobbyist and well-known D.C. operative Richard Berman. The entities share office space.

A secret recording during a closed-door conference of the Western Energy Alliance in 2014 features Berman urging oil and gas companies to open their pocketbooks to fund an "endless war" to turn the public against environmental organizations. He has a long history of fighting animal welfare, labor and consumer groups.

The Center for Organizational Research and Education shares staff with other projects like the Environmental Policy Alliance, Humane Society for Shelter Pets, HumaneWatch and PETA Kills Animals.

Berman and Co.'s Swearingen has also worked with the Environmental Policy Alliance -- which lampooned U.S. EPA with a video of fake agency police officers confiscating a lawn mower -- and a group targeting the LEED energy efficiency program.

Perrone said the new group's connection to Berman should have no bearing on consumers' trust in CAS.

"I've never been asked to do anything that's contrary to my beliefs or my ethics," Perrone said. He added, "If they did, which again, history dictates that they have not and will not, I would not do it."

'Holy grail' spokesperson

CAS launched Perrone's advocacy career. He earned a doctorate of science degree in immunology and infectious diseases from Johns Hopkins University in 1984. He used to be a biotechnology and medical device executive.

Perrone may represent a long-sought-after figure for chemical companies -- someone who can present the industry line to the public while claiming the professional credibility of an impartial scientist.

In 2009, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Coca-Cola Co., Alcoa Inc., Crown, the North American Metal Packaging Alliance Inc., the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Chemistry Council and Del Monte Foods Inc. formulated a communication strategy to encourage customers to keep using products with packages containing chemical bisphenol A (BPA).

The groups, according to meeting notes, doubted "obtaining a scientific spokesperson is attainable." In the meantime, they identified a "holy grail" spokesperson a "pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA."

The new CAS seems to be following the playbook of other Berman-linked groups, environmental advocates said.

"I think it's just like the rest of the Berman operation -- if you come up with a flashy website and some funny graphics, you can attract clients," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said.

Part of the firm's tactics is to use "credible messengers" and target celebrities for visibility and humor, Berman and Co. official Sarah Longwell told an American Kennel Club conference in 2014, according to accounts of the speech.

"The interest of the attacking front group is always to put out a new voice that has the veneer of science behind them," said Josh Mogerman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, adding the group is "banking on folks not digging into this guy's bio."

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