We emit 25 per cent less CO2 per kilo of pork than we did in 2005.
The feat was repeated to the hilt when Danish Crown launched a campaign in 2020 with the slogan “Danish pork is more climate-friendly than you think.”
The 25 per cent was promoted in TV and radio commercials, in newspaper ads, on street signs and on the packaging of the pork itself. A small footnote on the website stated that the figure came from a report from Aarhus University.
But now Danwatch and the Danish newspaper Politiken have revealed that Danish Crown, which commissioned and co-financed the report, has controlled the work of researchers at Aarhus University to a degree that, according to experts, violates the research principles of arm’s length and impartiality.
The revelation comes just weeks before Danish Crown is set to defend its campaign in the Western High Court, as the food giant has been sued for misleading marketing. The case is Denmark’s first greenwashing trial and is therefore considered to be a case of principle.
The experts’ opinions are based on emails and other documents sent between Aarhus University and Danish Crown, which Danwatch and Politiken have been given access to.
Heine Andersen, Professor of Sociology and expert in freedom of research, calls the report on which Danish Crown based its campaign “unreliable”.
“Researchers from Aarhus University should be in charge of the research. After all, they are the researchers. They have clearly not done that with this report. Here it is obviously Danish Crown that sits at the table, has provided data and calculations and decides how the results should be formulated,” says Heine Andersen, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen.
Research ethics expert Claus Emmeche finds the material worrying.
“It should not be a case where a private actor or a lobby organisation has written a conclusion in advance and then uses university researchers to rubber-stamp it. You suspect this when you read the parties’ correspondence,” says Claus Emmeche, Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Copenhagen.
Two selected responses from Danish Crown to Aarhus University.
From the very beginning, it was clear what Danish Crown wanted to get out of the collaboration with Aarhus University.
The correspondence about the report started in 2018, when Charlotte Thy, then environmental manager at Danish Crown, wrote an email to John Hermansen, a researcher in agriculture and the environment at Aarhus University.
He is also part of a research group that has previously been criticised for not being at arm’s length from the meat industry. We’ll come back to that.
Charlotte Thy writes that Danish Crown would like to have a life cycle assessment – or an LCA as it is called – of Danish pork. It is a method for calculating the carbon footprint of products. John Hermansen and his research group would like to do that, he replies.
Charlotte Thy suggests a meeting and points out what the report should be able to document:
“An outcome from the LCA should be a review of the results, as you did with the 13 types of beef, so that there is a basis for pointing out the advantages of pork on a documented basis.”
She refers to a previous report from 2015 by John Hermansen’s research group on the climate impact of different types of beef. It was the precursor to the “beef report”, also by Aarhus University, which was at the centre of one of the biggest research scandals of recent times. In 2021, the Attorney General’s Office concluded that Danish Crown must have co-authored both reports on beef due to the company’s involvement in the research itself.
“Here is finally our proposal for the calculations regarding the environmental profile of pork,” John Hermansen writes a few months after Danish Crown’s inquiry, and encloses a project description.
“As agreed, you just need to get started,” she replies. They agree on a price of DKK 30-40,000, but an actual contract is never drawn up.
Already in this initial phase, warning lights are clearly flashing, Heine Andersen points out. Firstly, it sounds as if the conclusion is written in advance when Charlotte Thy orders a LCA to document “the benefits of pork”, he says.
In addition, he points out that researchers should not send “proposals for calculations”, as they are the ones who should decide how the calculations should be designed. Last but not least, you should always ensure arm’s length in a contract.
“The fact that there is no contract that defines who is responsible for what and ensures independence and arm’s length disqualifies the report in advance,” says Heine Andersen.
However, it is in the period that follows that the whole thing becomes a case of pure confession, he adds.
The period otherwise starts with a good atmosphere between the parties. Danish Crown is excited about where the researchers’ work is heading. “It’s a fantastic development where you show great reductions,” Charlotte Thy praises.
However, after some corrections, the reductions will be slightly smaller, senior researcher Troels Kristensen from the research group explains. “This has meant some changes in both level and difference between the two years, but still with a significant reduction.”
“The difference is expected to be even greater when we also include the slaughterhouse part,” he adds.
“It’s still great, even if the number has shifted a bit,” Charlotte Thy replies.
However, the tone changes in November 2018, when Charlotte Thy reads what the researchers describe as “the final report”.
She thanks for the report, but notes: “There are a few things we need to get right before we are completely done.”
She then reminds them of the agreement with the project.
“Overall, we wanted to carry out this comparative life cycle assessment to be able to use it in marketing. The inspiration for this was taken from the beef project from 2015,” she writes, adding:
“The target group for the memorandum is thus communication professionals, salespeople and others who do not have a strong scientific background.”
She points out that she wants a meeting and that she has written a number of comments directly into the report, which she has attached.
In the document, Charlotte Thy has added 51 comments to different parts of the 28-page report. Most of the comments indicate that things should be changed. Figures and tables need to look different and parts of the text need to be changed.
For example, “Svin” (pig) should be changed to “gris” (pork) in the title – a change in wording that the Danish Agriculture & Food Council is also actively working to promote to improve the image of pork. She also prefers the term “miljøpåvirkning” (environmental impact) to “miljøbelastning” (environmental stress), she adds.
On the other hand, there are sections containing what she calls “environmental selling points”, which she would like to see more of: “Here we have some of the most important arguments that we need to use in marketing and further communication with our customers and other stakeholders. These scenarios and not least the choice of them should have a separate section and more information should be attached to them,” she writes.
She also writes in a comment that the environmental footprint of soy feed should not be included. It should be stated separately, she dictates. The lack of this item in the accounts was one of the experts’ points of criticism in the coverage of the beef report, as it represents a large part of the climate impact of food.
“If you don’t include it, you miss the most important aspect. Of course, you should include it to the best of your ability,” said Henrik Wenzel, professor at SDU and expert in life cycle analyses, on that occasion.
Danish Crown added 51 comments on parts of the report after it was sent to the company by the researchers from Aarhus University. Here are some examples:
Heine Andersen strongly opposes the way Danish Crown is allowed into the control room.
“It is absolutely grotesque that the external party, who has billions of Danish kroner at stake, can be allowed to go through the draft sentence by sentence and comment on every possible detail on almost every page. It is completely unacceptable.”
The process is a breach of the arm’s length principle and thus the guidelines for good research practice, according to Professor of Law at SDU and expert in freedom of research, Sten Schaumburg-Müller.
“Of course, there may be some things that the requester (the person ordering the research, ed.) has an opinion about that is so minor that it doesn’t affect the arm’s length. But when it comes to the methodology or calculations themselves, the line has been crossed. And my assessment is that in this case, we are over the line.
This is backed up by Claus Emmeche.
“It is a breach of the arm’s length principle when researchers’ freedom to choose methods, calculation models and so on is not respected. And that seems to be the case here.”
Danish Crown begins communicating on the report’s findings in spring 2019 when the company publishes its climate targets. “Danish Crown has had researchers calculating and documenting the development since 2005. Therefore, it is now clear that the climate impact of producing one kilogram of pork has been reduced by 25 per cent,” the company writes, without mentioning that Aarhus University made the report.
In the fall, when Information’s uncovering of the beef report was in full swing, Danish Crown writes to the researchers that they would like to use the report despite what Information wrote. However, the parties may need to be more clear about their collaboration, Charlotte Thy notes:
“It has been decided to maintain that we will present the results from the comparative LCA you did for us. This means that we must also be able to present the memorandum.”
“In light of the pending beef case, the memorandum may need to be updated with a preface and a declaration to clarify what has been going on.”
The researchers therefore add the following about the collaboration:
“Danish Crown has provided editorial and comprehension comments, including the use of the term “grisekød” (pork) instead of “svinekød” (pig meat)”. Method selection, data processing and the final version of the report were made by employees at the Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University.”
However, this is not an adequate description, says Claus Emmeche.
“It sounds like a camouflage of what has actually happened. They could have written that Danish Crown has also been involved in interpreting data and results.”
Sten Schaumburg-Müller agrees.
“This is not a very precise way of describing what has happened. It should be mentioned that Danish Crown has been involved in both obtaining and assessing data.”
Danish Crown does not wish to be interviewed. The reason for this is that Charlotte Thy and her former managers no longer work at the company, press manager Jens Hansen writes.
However, Danish Crown acknowledges that the company has interfered too much in the creation of the pork report. Nevertheless, the conclusions of the report stand, Jens Hansen writes.
“We are fully aware that the process behind the creation of the concept paper and the written presentation of the project was criticisable. The important thing for us, however, is that the validity of the analyses, calculations and results in the report has not been questioned.”
Jørgen Eivind Olesen, Head of Institute, agrees to this.
Do you stand behind this report today?
“We are not behind the process, it is done in a different way today. In 2019, we did not have a quality management system, which the process around this report reflects,” says the head of department.
Not enough arm length?
“When the quality management system was introduced at the end of 2019, after this report was submitted, we changed the processes to better ensure arm’s length and to better declare the necessary communication and exchange of data between a researcher and a company. It has nothing to do with the research results. We stand fully behind them.”
Politiken and Danwatch have been in contact with Charlotte Thy, who no longer works at Danish Crown. She does not wish to comment.