Plans by New York and Chicago to ban trans fats from restaurant food may sound good to advocates of healthy eating. But for Richard Berman, they're a call to battle.
The Washington lobbyist and public relations expert launched a Web site last week attacking the trans fat ban. And he's booking $100,000 worth of network TV commercials to rally public opinion against what he calls the "food police."
Don't get him wrong. Berman doesn't contest the notion that trans fats are bad for your health. But, he asks, do we really need laws to prohibit them?
"The best place for these kinds of issues to be resolved is the marketplace," he says.
The argument is vintage Berman, and the trans fat food fight is funded with a chunk of the $10 million he collects every year to fight for snack food makers, soft drink bottlers, the alcoholic beverage industry and other politically incorrect causes.
With a charming smile that can disarm even some enemies, he says money isn't what motivates him: "Every issue that I get involved in is something I believe in."
Berman, 63, worked as a government relations lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several companies before setting up his own lobbying firm in 1987. In the mid-1990s, he began using money from Phillip Morris USA to fight restaurant smoking bans.
With a public relations firm, five nonprofit organizations (with names such as the Center for Consumer Freedom) and a staff of 28, Berman uses Web sites, news releases and newspaper and TV ads to spread his message: that health advocates, from the "food police" to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are going too far.
Outside of the food wars, he battles against labor unions in their struggle with business interests over a higher minimum wage and laws making it easier for workers to organize.
Over the years, his client list and aggressive tactics have made Berman his share of enemies.
But even some critics concede that he can be charming -- they compare him loosely with Nick Naylor, the lead character and spokesman for the tobacco industry in the movie Thank You for Smoking.
"He's a very engaging guy. He's a nice guy, but it's just that what he does is dishonest," said Chuck Hurley, chief executive of MADD, who has known Berman since the 1970s.
Berman counters that he just expresses the less-frequently heard side of two-sided issues.
"I'm trying to inject some common sense into these debates," he said.
Berman's latest effort is aimed at fighting off proposals in New York and Chicago to prohibit trans fats in foods served in restaurants.
In New York, where the ban would affect all restaurants, the city board of health plans hearings before it makes a decision in December. Chicago's plan is aimed at chain restaurants, exempting eateries with annual revenues of less than $20 million. No vote has been scheduled.
Artery-clogging trans fats are the result of treating natural vegetable oils with hydrogen to prolong shelf life and improve taste. Food makers began removing them from packaged goods this year when new labeling requirements took effect, but they still turn up in cooking oils, margarine and shortenings, pie crusts, french fries and doughnuts.
Berman's television commercials, targeted for local and national broadcasts, use humor and exaggeration to get his point across.
In one, a boy starts to cry after an ice cream cone is snatched out of his hand and a voice says, "Everywhere you turn, somebody is telling us what we can't eat."
In another, a trial lawyer paces a courtroom, waving a box of cookies as he grills the defendant about her product's effect on his client's waistline.
"So YOU sold my client these chocolate chips," he says. "And look, no warning label, just pretty pictures." He leans over, stares straight into his target's eyes and sneers, "You make them taste good on purpose, don't you?"
The camera shifts to the defendant -- a frightened Girl Scout.
"I guess so," she says.
The ads direct viewers to Berman's Web site, consumerfree dom.com, where they can read opinion pieces with headlines such as, "Eating Shown to be Hazardous to Your Health."
Last week, Berman also weighed in on the E. coli outbreak that forced the removal of fresh spinach from supermarket shelves nationwide. His take: "While death and disease of any sort is tragic, the fact that a food-borne illness has received so much attention at all is one indicator of just how safe our food supply generally is."
The health advocates Berman attacks say they're not snatching ice cream cones from kids. But they say he creates unwanted distractions and makes it harder to address a national obesity epidemic.
"We're trying to concentrate on what's going on -- on the playing field -- and these guys are kind of snapping towels at us in the locker room," said Jeff Cronin, a researcher for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a frequent target of Berman's attacks.
Critics say Berman's arguments pick on fragments of studies, statistical errors in health reports and any discrepancies he can find to confuse the public. But Berman says his science is every bit as solid as his opponents'.
Sometimes, he finds plenty of ammunition. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drastically reduced an earlier estimate of obesity-related deaths last year, Berman launched a $600,000 media blitz, with full-page ads in major newspapers, alleging that the public was being "force fed a steady diet of obesity myths."
It's an issue that demands close examination, Berman said, noting that many health experts were skeptical when the CDC initially reported 400,000 obesity-related deaths in 2004.
"We knew that first set of numbers were way off," Berman said. The revised estimates put the number at 112,000.
Critics say Berman is turning tactics crafted years ago by the tobacco industry on new targets, making it harder to convince the public about the need to act on issues from the minimum wage to healthier foods and sobriety checkpoints.
"He's the gunslinger in black that corporate America goes to when they really want to do something dirty," said Stewart Acuff, national director of organizing for the AFL-CIO.
But Berman says it's a matter of perspective.
Obesity, drunken driving and decent wages are serious issues, he says, but the problems aren't as serious as advocacy groups portray them, and the solutions aren't so simple.
Raising the minimum wage may sound good, but it can threaten the survival of restaurants and other businesses operating on tight profit margins. To prevent drunken driving, we should pay more attention to underlying alcoholism, he says, and to deal with obesity, we should encourage physical activity.
"I don't think there's one solution to obesity, any more than there's one solution to speeding on the interstates or to crime," he said.
Berman says his funding comes from restaurant and food companies, as well as from individuals. But he won't identify specific sources -- because they're essentially paying him to take the heat for what he says on their behalf.
"If I worked for you, you wouldn't want to be identified and attacked for the causes that I take stands on," Berman said.
Berman's causes may be legitimate, but they're unpopular enough that image-conscious businesses are reluctant to come forward, his supporters say.
"If you're a public company, the last thing you want is to have your name spread all over the news as having a big fight with somebody. Rick provides a little bit of cover," said Berman's friend, Dick Rivera, a business consultant and former chief executive of TGI Friday's.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington watchdog group, has filed a complaint asking the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the nonprofit status of Berman's nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom. The group claims Berman has funneled $7 million in charitable contributions to himself and his company since 1997.
Berman counters that he has worked for years with the IRS, and he isn't worried about the status of CCF or any of his nonprofits. He acknowledges raising $10 million a year from his clients, but says the figure is deceptive because much of the cash is quickly funneled into advertising campaigns.
For example, he plans to spend $3 million this year on anti-labor campaigns. "The money all goes out the door pretty soon after it comes in," he said.
For many of Berman's adversaries, the battles have become personal. When Richard F. Banzhaf III, an outspoken George Washington University law professor, began suing fast food chains a few years ago, Berman began airing the Girl Scout cookie ad -- shot in GW's own moot courtroom.
"That was obviously aimed at me," said Banzhaf, who has sparred with Berman on CNN and other networks.
Some opponents argue that Berman isn't all that effective. "We think he's wasted a lot of corporate money, and we're surprised a lot of corporations would waste so much money on such foolishness," said the AFL-CIO's Acuff.
But Banzhaf said Berman's tactics definitely work in the short run.
"The ads are devilishly clever and I think they do have an impact," Banzhaf said. "He's trying to reach potential jurors and trying to change public opinions -- and just like it was with the tobacco industry, if they can slow things down, they win."