by Marion Nestle
Jan 29 2008

Ah, the Center for Consumer Freedom

If you would like to know how the Center for Consumer Freedom operates, here is an e-mail message that I just received from David Martosko, who identifies himself as the Director of Research for the Center. I reproduce it here in its entirety (Here’s the post he refers to. For more information about how this group operates, follow the links on one of my previous posts). I should add that Mr. Martosko called me at 3:00 p.m. today to say “I don’t care how famous you are. We intend to take legal action.”  I didn’t think I was so famous.  I guess I should be flattered.  Here’s the written threat:

Dear Dr. Nestle,

In a blog posting on January 24, you wrote that “the tuna industry is fighting back through its public relations agency, the Center for Consumer Freedom.” You also wrote that “Every word CCF says is paid for, and some tuna association pays it to say that methylmercury is not a problem.” (source: )

These statements are false, and they seem calculated to do harm to our reputation.

You are free to speculate about the sources of support that our public-education efforts receive. You are not free, however, to assert things that are not true in an attempt to discredit our work. The above examples have clearly crossed the line into libel territory, and could lead to legal action.

If you have documentation that you believe substantiates your claim, I would be very interested to see it. But I am quite certain that you do not. I advise you to either post a correction or withdraw your January 24 piece entirely.


David Martosko
Director of Research
Center for Consumer Freedom

cc: Richard Berman, Executive Director

  • Is he reading the same post that the the rest of are reading? I see nothing about what the “…CCF is paid for…”. Is there another post I am missing, or is he just billing his clients for these hours too?

    What a nut-case!

  • Tracy

    Kind of surprising that Martosko would write that, considering it’s not his job to know who contributes to the CCF, according to him:

    In January 2006 David Martosko from CCF was asked, in the context of their campaign dismissing concerns about mercury concentration in seafood, whether they received funding from the seafood industry, from coal companies or utilities. “Well, I know that we never accepted money from utilities or coal companies. I don’t know exactly which companies in the food sector support us. You know, it’s not my job to know. I really don’t pay attention. I do know that the vast majority of our, say, institutional funding, comes from the food sector. Beyond that, I just don’t know,” he said.

    And as far as “asserting things that are not true” … that’s Martosko’s whole career.

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  • Bix

    I’m not sure anymore. If it’s false that “every word CCF says is paid for”, does that mean CCF employees are working for free?

  • Shame on you, Dr. Nestle, for providing factual citations for your assertions, too! The gall! Apparently CCF is not interested in Consumer Freedom of Speech.

  • I think the Wikipedia entry for CCF makes it pretty clear that Dr. Nestle’s text is correct:

    Their attempt to intimidate Dr. Nestle into withdrawing her post is disgraceful.

  • Dorene

    That letter is just a threat — as a local activist, I got an even more strongly worded letter from an agency that wasn’t happy with me. This letter is much less strongly worded, so you are probably free to ignore it.

    By this time, I’m sure you have your own lawyer to advise you on these matters — it’s all in the wording and this isn’t all that scary.

  • Mark

    You might have mentioned that the guys on the other side are bankrolled by an ocean conservation group. Their aim is to reduce tuna fishing, not for the purpose of saving our health, but to protect the ocean environment, a laudable goal, but still a conflict of interest when considering their claims about medical concerns.

    Since I live in Japan, this issue is kind of a sore point for me, since it’s hard to believe the mercury scare when you live in a country (1) where so much tuna is consumed — in sushi, in salads, in pizza, in soups, in bakery sandwiches — and (2) where the kids are generally very bright.

  • Another off balance letter from a center for control. Martosko should be mad, mad at his loose morals and licentious ways.

  • kat

    Martosko appears to be on a fish industry-financed rampage judging from his response to a Newsweek article about the mercury controversy:

  • Dear Dr. Nestle,

    I am disappointed that you persist in refusing to retract or qualify your reckless statement of January 24th. The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) has not accepted contributions from any “tuna association.” Your statement to the contrary is false. This is the third time I have advised you that it’s false.

    Also, contrary to your statement, the reason CCF maintains that methylmercury (in the trace levels seen in commercial fish) is not a serious health problem is because that opinion is in line with the best and most robust scientific studies to date. It should not be lost on you as a scholar that the entire medical literature contains zero cases of fish-related mercury poisoning in the United States. Long-established safety cushions in federal regulatory standards ensure that consumers are exposed to only a tiny fraction of mercury levels that might (and I underline “might”) be harmful.

    You’re entitled to your own opinion, of course. But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed, you are not entitled to your own facts.

    I encourage you to be honest and publicly allow that your January 24th statements were opinion, not fact; and that you were exercising an educated guess, borne of the frustration that comes from realizing that not everyone — scientists included — agrees with you.

    David Martosko
    Center for Consumer Freedom

  • I’m interested to know how Mr. Martosko is qualified to ascertain what the “best and most robust” scientific studies are to date. To the best of my and Google’s knowledge, he does not have any advanced scientific degrees, nor has he authored any peer-reviewed papers. Interesting, someone purporting to be his cousin left a comment on our blog in response to a post I wrote about Martosko, saying “My folks ([David Martosko’s] grandparents) died of smoking related illnesses so it was somewhat disappointing he would align himself with an organization backed by tobacco, among other things. But hey, he’s his own man with his own convictions.”

    Apparently those convictions include Americans’ right to poison themselves with methylmercury. Ain’t freedom great?

  • Full disclosure: Three of my four grandparents (and neither of my parents) were life-long smokers. The three lived into their late ’80s. My maternal grandma died in her very early ’60s from complications of Coeliac disease. She never smoked a cigarette. Neither have I. And I’ve never said a public word for or against tobacco, although I enjoy a cigar about once a month with a nice glass of wine.

    The guy who wrote you was my uncle, not my cousin. Don’t we all have one crazy “attic” relative? He’s mine.

    The most “robust” science, in my judgment, is that which involves the broadest number of data points and subjects. In that regard, the prize clearly goes to a study published in The Lancet last year. A team led by an NIH researcher (Dr. Joseph Hibbeln) found that the best fetal (and childhood) development happened in cases where pregnant women ate the most fish — regardless of its mercury content. This study was many, many times larger than its nearest neighbor. No contest. And pregnant women who swore off fish had, ironically, children who were stunted developmentally.

    Frankly, this doesn’t take a Ph.D to understand. If you’re fortunate enough to have a job that affords you the time to read through the wealth of science on the subject, and you’re scientifically literate, it’s hard to conclude that consumers would be served by advice that suggests lower fish consumption in any situation.

    I leave you with this: If mercury poisoning from fish consumption is such a hazard in the U.S., where are all the victims? And don’t bother citing Dr. Hightower of San Francisco. Unless she’s willing to share her data with her peers (and standardize her laboratory methods), it’s hard to take her seriously.

    Anyone who wants more information, and is in earnest about it, is welcome to e-mail me. (

  • Marian Burros has followed up with a post on the NY Times Diner’s Journal, offering two links from a science conference on this subject and it’s conclusion.

  • Fentry

    You know Dave, all blogs are opinions, not facts–and readers take them as such. Further, “facts” are often opinions in the end, anyway.

    The real reason your organization lacks credibility is not because of anything anyone has to say about it: it’s because of your own refusal to list your donors.

    In the past, I have been sympathetic to arguments for freedom that your organization has made–but until people can see the money trail, you will always be regarded as hacks–and this is an opinion on an opinion website.

  • Professional writers have an obligation to correct the record when they get something wrong. Period. The New York Times publishes dozens of corrections every month. My own organization made a factual gaffe this week, and we published a prominent correction on our website. Facts are facts, and when you make stuff up in order to harm people, you should be held accountable.

  • Tracy

    Martosko says this:

    “When you make stuff up in order to harm people, you should be held accountable.”

    But that’s exactly what the CCF does. It was created to shed doubt on the dangers of smoking, and it failed. So it moved onto the restaurant, meat and alcohol industries. You’re taking people’s lives in your own hands and don’t care because it’s making you money. I don’t think one can get any lower.

  • Fentry

    I’m afraid that the semantic debate underlying this may turn on the term “tuna industry.” What we often think of as the “tuna industry is not a “tuna industry” per se, but a processed foodstuffs (or cigarette) industry.

    For instance, this is from the Wikipedia entry on Del Monte, the owner of Starkist, a popular tuna brand: “In 1979 Del Monte (headquartered in San Francisco) was merged into R.J. Reynolds Industries, Inc. (later RJR Nabisco, Inc.). Ten years later the fresh fruit business was sold and renamed Fresh Del Monte Produce; although no longer affiliated with Del Monte Foods…RJR Nabisco sold the remaining food processing divisions, known as Del Monte Foods, to private investors in 1989. Del Monte Foods again became a publicly traded company in 1999 and in 2002 Del Monte purchased several brands from US food giant Heinz in an all stock transaction that left Heinz shareholders with 74.5% of Del Monte…”

    If one goes to Heinz’ Wikipedia page, one finds that they own restaurant chain T.G.I Fridays, Ore-Ida potatoes and many other brands.

    The tenor of our country has changed: this is not the age of “The Organization Man.” People across the political spectrum demand transparency, accountability, and access to information. It saddens me that the good points the Center for Consumer Freedom makes from time to time are undermined by their outmoded grasp of political awareness. It’s a strategic and tactical problem.

    It’s not so much because industry gives them money, but rather the “shroud” of secrecy and hostility to the openness that many have termed “sunshine.”

    We are adults: we can evaluate where Dr. Nestle is coming from. We know where she works, how she earns her living, what boards she has sat on, etc. and can use that information for critical evaluation of her opinions.

    Unfortunately, in Washington, freedom (of the right kind) needs better advocates.

  • Chips

    Nicely put, Fentry! It sure makes me wonder why David Martosko, who encourages Marion Nestle to be “honest and publicly allow” “the facts”, refuses to honestly and publicly explain who funds his organization. Now those would be some facts worth knowing.

  • Ellen

    I’d like to add to the observation about the “tuna industry.” There is a U.S. Tuna Foundation whose primary function appears to be to promote canned tuna and it has also been active in defending its product in light of mercury contamination claims. The Foundation is represented by a PR firm (more than one) and that information, at least to some extent, is public.
    Internet Edition, June 14, 2006, Page 7

    “The U.S. Tuna Foundation, the trade group for the billion-dollar tuna industry which is fighting reports of high mercury content in canned tuna, is in the process of changing PR firms from Ruder Finn to Burson-Marsteller.”

    Then there is the National Fisheries Institute. Bloomberg had an article about their involvement in a campaign to get mothers-to-be to eat more fish. The article made an “educated guess” about the funding and a blog posted that article. An anonymous comment chastised the blogger for getting the “facts” wrong. The anonymous source apparently had access to “facts” no one else did, but choose not to share their source or even their name. See both postings below:
    Source: Bloomberg News, October 4, 2007
    “A nonprofit group backed by the seafood industry urged pregnant women and nursing mothers to eat more fish than recommended by U.S. officials concerned that mercury contamination can hurt babies,” reports Avram Goldstein. “The group, the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, said women who avoid seafood to limit exposure to mercury deprive their babies and themselves of essential nutrients. Women should eat at least the 12 ounces a week suggested as a maximum by the government, the coalition said today at a briefing in Washington.” The report was funded with $74,000 from the National Fisheries Institute, a client of the Burson-Marsteller PR firm. Another food industry front group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, chimed in with a news release calling for environmental groups to apologize for creating “panic” about mercury in foods.
    an anonymous poster said:

    10 October 2007 at 12:23 pm
    sorry but your facts are all wrong — NFI did not pay for the report — there is no report, it’s just a group of doctors who treat pregnant women making a recommendation — what NFI is spending its money on – and it’s $60,000, not $74,000 — is to promote the group’s message that it’s safe for pregnant women to eat more than 12 ounces a week of seafood — sorry if the facts ruin your conspiracy theory, but the facts are the facts — you should try check them for yourself instead of relying on bloggers who know nothing about the subjects they seem to have so many opinions about.

    As noted in one of the comments posted earlier, Mr. Martosko and the CCF keep CCF funding specifics under wraps. The Village Voice couldn’t get him to reveal them when they investigated who might be funding

    ” So who is funding the fishscam .com campaign? The fishing or electric industries might seem like good guesses, but director of research Martosko says no, CCF is supported by private donors, along with restaurants and others in the food-and-beverage business. He won’t get more specific, and he doesn’t have to. CCF is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and it doesn’t have to report the names of the corporations that give it money. ”,hunter,71775,24.html

    At other times, he prefers to profess ignorance, or at least, unfamiliarity, with the facts.

    “GELLERMAN: Mr. Martosko, do you or doe
    s the Center for Consumer Freedom get money from the seafood industry, from coal companies, utilities?

    MARTOSKO: Well, I know that we never accepted money from utilities or coal companies. I don’t know exactly which companies in the food sector support us. You know, it’s not my job to know. I really don’t pay attention. I do know that the vast majority of our, say, institutional funding, comes from the food sector. Beyond that, I just don’t know.”

    The argument seems to be that he doesn’t know who does fund CCF, but he definitely knows who doesn’t. And we should, too. Problem is, CCF won’t share that information – reminiscient of that sing-song schoolyard taunt we’re all familiar with “I know something you don’t know.” Sorry, but I don’t think the CCF’s consistent lack of transparency lends itself to charges that people just can’t seem to get their facts straight.

  • Matty

    Mr. Martosko,

    Your comments on the science of methylmercury exposure make me wonder about your thoughts on Global Warming and Evolution. Your comments do not reflect the opinions of the majority scientists in this field.
    Forty experts, assembled into four panels for the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in 2006. Here are some of their declarations (they don’t seem to agree with you Mr. Martosko) :

    … there is growing evidence that current exposures are sufficient to alter normal function of several physiological and developmental systems, indicating that
    methylmercury exposure still constitutes an important public health problem. Long-lasting effects of fetal methylmercury exposure have been described in children throughout the world

    Risk Assessment. Methylmercury is a developmental neurotoxin, and its developmental
    neurotoxicity to the fetus constitutes the current basis for risk assessments and public health policies. Uncertainties remain in the risk assessment for the neurodevelopmental effects of methylmercury. Yet there is sufficient evidence to warrant the prudent selection of fish species in the diet, particularly for pregnant women and children.

    Cardiovascular Effects of Methylmercury. Current studies suggest that exposure to
    methylmercury could increase the risk of adverse cardiovascular effects in a significant fraction of the human population. Reported effects include cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease,
    myocardial infarction, ischemic heart disease), increased blood pressure and hypertension, and altered heart rate. The strongest cause-effect evidence is for cardiovascular disease, particularly myocardial
    infarction in adult men.

    Methylmercury and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Fish can contain both methylmercury and beneficial
    omega-3 fatty acids. Methylmercury exerts toxicity and can also diminish the beneficial health
    effects of omega-3 fatty acids. As with mercury, there are large variations in the level of omega-3
    fatty acids in fish. Selection of fish species for consumption should seek to maximize the intake of beneficial fatty acids while limiting exposure to methylmercury.

  • Matty —

    I attended that conference, and they now have a lot of catching up to do. This “declaration” you cite was behind the times the moment it came out, because several critical studies were released between the 2006 Madison conference and the publication of its conclusions.

    To summarize what made this declaration out-of-date:

    (1) A study published in The Lancet determined that pregnant women can best protect their unborn children by eating considerably more fish than U.S. government guidelines recommend.

    (2) A Harvard study published in JAMA found that the documented health benefits of eating fish far outweigh any hypothetical risks.

    (3) The Institute of Medicine cautioned that posting mercury warnings in public places results in a “spillover effect,” scaring away Americans who have no reason to heed the warnings of fish-related health risks.

    (4) In Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers who conducted a well-regarded study of health risks associated with mercury conceded that their observations in the Faroe Islands were related to whale meat, not fish. (This is the study on which the EPA’s “reference dose” for mercury is principally based).

    Bottom line: The “Madison Declaration” isn’t credible because it’s obsolete.

    Readers who are interested in this research can find an easy-to-read summary in a report called “Seafood Science Since Madison,” which is available from the Center for Consumer Freedom at:

  • Bix

    I remember that Lancet study. As I recall it had low odds ratios. The odds of a child being in the lowest quartile for verbal IQ were not that different between mothers who consumed less than 340 grams (12 oz) seafood/week and those who consumed more. And it was an epidemiological study, not an intervention study. They didn’t measure blood levels of hypothesized contributing factors. This study is just one data point.

    The most sensible basis for a recommendation is a review of the body of evidence, not the promotion of a few hand-picked studies. And I see that the Madison Conference parsed “1000 abstracts submitted from authors of 58 countries”, which to me gives them credibility.

  • Matty

    Mr. Martosko,

    None f your points actually dispute the Madison Conference. The fact that fish is a good thing to eat is not in dispute. It’s the type of fish and in what quantities. You are clearly not an honest objective critic or you would not be linking to a document that reads like a press release. Everyone knows who you are and what you represent.

    Sorry to say but you really have lost this battle. The food blogs are filled with info on your group and the more you write, the more you expose yourself for exactly what you are.

    The netroots can be a powerful antidote to the industry shills like yourself.

  • tom martosko

    I am Tom Martosko. I am david martosko’s “crazy attic” relative. My resume includes 18 years banking/auditing with JP Morgan Chase (nee Chemical Bank of New York) including Audit and Compliance Officer and 15 years in the publishing/press clipping/information services industry. I see he defines “crazy attic” relative as anyone related to him that doesn’t agree with him and fails to keep in touch over the years (for obvious reasons). Apparently he has obtained a psychiatrist’s degree since we last talked.

    I also notice he did not disagree with me when I mentioned how both MY parents (who were his grandparents) died of lung cancer and emphysema. I never mentioned his grandparents on the other side nor did I mention him. THAT comment by him was no doubt made to deflect the reaction to the cause of deaths of his other grandparents. I AM curious though(but only if he’s honest with himself) why he doesn’t smoke more than an occasional cigar. Do the most “robust” studies on cigarette smoking show no connection to either? No doubt he would just claim personal preference, with no mention of health hazards. So you can understand how disappointing it was to see him go to work for a company funded in part by the tobacco industry.

    What he DID do however was to send me a note a while back calling my comments a “low blow” and implying legal action…”ignorance of the laws of slander is no excuse”…over the comment I made in the blog mentioned above. lol

    I see Mr. Berman’s go for the jugular, “knife-in-teeth” attitude rubs off on his employees.

  • Are there 2 different types of Mercury? I think I saw a multi vitamin containing mercury.

  • Marion

    @Jenny — I doubt you saw mercury in a multivitamin. If anyone does see something like that, please send me the label. Mercury is a metal that is toxic when breathed in or handled extensively (recall: the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland; hatmakers used mercury to make felt). In water, mercury gets converted to methylmercury which accumulates up the fish food chain. Methylmercury is why federal agencies advise pregnant women not to eat large predatory fish. I discuss the mercury-in-fish issue in my book, What to Eat. Take a look!