Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are the top sweeteners when it comes to satisfying Americans’ sweet tooth, but an ongoing court battle between the two industries is filled with tart allegations about money trails and smear campaigns.
More than 700,000 pages of recently released, previously confidential documents obtained by the Palm Beach Post provide an inside look at both industries. They’ve come to light during proceedings in a federal lawsuit filed in 2011 in Los Angeles by the sugar industry against high-fructose corn syrup producers alleging misleading advertising.
Led by the Western Sugar Cooperative, the sugar companies alleged that the Corn Refiners Association and its agribusiness members such as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill Inc. and Tate & Lyle ran a deceptive $50 million ad campaign called “Sweet Surprise.” The campaign that began in 2008 told consumers that “sugar is sugar” and that “your body cannot tell the difference between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.”
A pretrial hearing is set for November, but no trial date has been scheduled.
The sugar industry was especially outraged by the high-fructose corn syrup industry asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change high-fructose corn syrup’s name to “corn sugar.” The FDA denied that petition in May 2012, saying that corn sugar is a term used for dextrose for more than 30 years and that consumers would be confused by a liquid product being called sugar.
In September 2012, the HFCS industry filed a countersuit alleging that the sugar folks waged “a spin and smear conspiracy” against HFCS that began as early as 2003. Its goal was to persuade consumers that HFCS was not natural and should be avoided and that sugar-containing products are superior.
The documents, such as memos from Sugar Association Executive Director Andy Briscoe to its board, make it clear that the fight for market share is a big one.
The sugar industry’s attorneys assert in court filings that the corn refiners are trying to conceal information from the public. For example, they allege that corn refiners have paid researchers James Rippe and John S. White more than $10 million to advocate on their behalf.
The corn refiners counter that in a Dec. 20 filing: “If anything, it is the plaintiffs who have engaged in a spin-and-smear conspiracy to scare the public into consuming sugar over HFCS.”
They point to internal Sugar Association memos in which officials admitted that a study about HFCS in soft drinks was flawed, but then used it and other discredited studies to publicly attack HFCS.
White and Rippe have never hidden their connection to the Corn Refiners Association, CRA attorneys state in court filings.
Among the documents now public is a Sept. 13, 2004, memo from Briscoe to the Sugar Association board. It states that in October 2003 the board approved as its No. 1 objective the replacement of high-fructose corn syrup with sugar in the food and beverage industry.
That same memo also states, “We are not doing research to denigrate HFCS, but are doing research to verify the nutritional safety of sugar.”
Revealing from the corn refiners is an email with the subject line “Marketing Ploy.” Archer Daniels Midland spokesman David Weintraub wrote, “I think we’re unnecessarily asking for trouble by using the ‘natural’ language.” A few months later in another email, he called the name change “dishonest and sneaky.”
Weintraub also questioned how something that comes from a “chemical factory” could be natural. He then said that while the “claim is true,” that doesn’t mean the corn refiners have to say it.
Around the same time, Tate & Lyle executive Matthew Wineinger cautioned that “two new TV ads” calling HFCS “corn sugar” may raise legal “concerns.”
Adam Fox, attorney for the Sugar Association and other plaintiffs, said the corn refiners had sought to keep all the documents confidential — then during a Jan. 23 hearing voluntarily removed the confidentiality designation on “a bunch of documents,” but maintained it on others.
The judge ordered the corn refiners to re-evaluate the documents as to which should be confidential, Fox said.
“What we found interesting is ... they had no problem sharing the information with competitors — they were sharing them with us — they just did not want the public to know,” Fox said.
“Basically the documents show that they thought using the name corn sugar was sneaky and dishonest and they were asking for trouble,” Fox said. “Other documents show they were aware of scientific research to undercut their abilities to try to show that sugar and HFCS are the same.”
What’s at stake? A $77 billion global industry.
“They are trying to have their cake and eat it too,” Fox said of the HFCS industry and its attorneys.