Food Fight Comes to America
by John Stauber
The Nation magazine, December 27, 1999
As the international uprising against genetically engineered
(GE) foods continues to grow, the worst fear of US government
and business officials is that the commotion abroad will ~ awaken
Americans, who unknowingly already consume biotech foods being
rejected in Europe. The victories of their foreign counterparts,
meanwhile, are providing fresh inspiration for US food activists,
some of whom have struggled for decades to win media coverage,
citizen attention and regulatory action. The Food and Drug Administration
has officially opposed biotech food labeling and mandatory, safety
testing since 1992. But now that Europeans are forcing American
companies to segregate and label genetically engineered foods,
it is much more difficult to claim that the same can't be done
in the United States.
Last summer was a watershed event for many US farmers, who
planted Monsanto's biotech corn and soybeans, only to find them
rejected abroad. Some are shifting back to traditional varieties,
at least until the crisis is resolved. Gary Goldberg, CEO of the
American Corn Growers Association, suggested in November that
farmers avoid genetically engineered seed corn and try to obtain
non-engineered varieties before farmer demand depletes supplies
of old-fashioned seed.
The US food and biotechnology industries are now in full 'crisis
management" mode, the* PR experts and lobbyists working furiously
to prevent the same kind of defeat suffered on foreign shores.
One example is the recently launched Alliance for Better Foods,
run from the DC office of the PR/lobby firm BSMG, which also represents
Monsanto and Philip Morris, America's largest food company. Monsanto's
PR firm Burson-Marsteller recently bused 100 members of a Washington,
DC, Baptist church to stage a pro-GE-foods rally outside an FDA
hearing. But if events in Europe are any guide, the momentum may
have shifted to a new alliance of grassroots environmentalists,
consumer activists and family farmers. The Los Angeles Times noted
in October that "a storm of protest. . .has reached US shores,
leading some experts to predict that agricultural biotechnology
could go the way of nuclear energy-falling out of favor because
of public fears and unfavorable economics."
The key to any successful biotech "issue management"
campaign is repeating simple but carefully chosen messages that
can set the terms of the debate. This was true with Monsanto's
genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH), administered
to cows to increase milk output. In the case of rBGH, one message
was that "the milk is the same." This isn't true, and
changes in the milk are a reason the drug hasn't been approved
by Europe or Canada. But the message worked here, where, after
a furious PR and lobbying campaign, the FDA approved the use of
rBGH and allowed sales of dairy products without consumer labeling.
Six years later, Monsanto claims that one-third of US cows are
in herds injected daily with rBGH.
Another simple but effective PR tactic, known as "the
third-party technique," puts messages in the mouths of independent-seeming
experts, such as scientists and doctors, whom journalists and
the public are more likely to trust. Besides government "watchdogs"
at the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), such messengers
can include former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, the AMA and
its prestigious publication Journal of the American Medical Association,
and the American Dietetic Association. All these and more have
vouched for rBGH, and we can expect an avalanche of similar trusted
experts reassuring us about biotech foods in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, many right-wing pro-industry groups have launched their
own PR campaigns against the "fear-mongering" of consumer
and environmental activists. At Thanksgiving, for example, the
National Center for Public Policy Research faxed to newsrooms
a release headlined ACTIVISTS ATTACK BIO-ENGINEERED FOOD DESPITE
BENEFITS TO THE POOR AND THE SICK. All these tactics would fail,
of course, if the media did their job by thoroughly investigating
and reporting the issue of genetically engineered foods, and that
is why media management is the number-one goal of every PR campaign.
As its ultimate weapon, industry has successfully lobbied
into law "agricultural product disparagement" statutes
that give them new powers to sue people who criticize their products.
The first such lawsuit was filed in Texas against Oprah Winfrey
and her guest Howard Lyman for the crime of airing a public debate
on mad cow disease and its risks in the United States. A jury
ruled in Oprah's favor, prompting her to crow that "free
speech rocks." The reality is that her case is on appeal,
and she has spent more than $2 million thus far in legal bills
that she will never get back. Food-disparagement statutes survive
intact in Texas and twelve other states, and this shot across
the bow of the media has already had a chilling impact on coverage
of other food controversies.
One of the smartest moves by Monsanto in the rBGH fight was
hiring Carol Tucker Foreman, an influential and well-connected
Democratic insider and lobbyist. Previously, Foreman had been
the executive director of the DC-based Consumer Federation of
America and then, under President Jimmy Carter, an Assistant Secretary
of Agriculture. Soon after her stint at USDA she launched her
own DC lobby firm with many corporate clients. While paid by Monsanto
to lobby for rBGH, Foreman also coordinated the Safe Food Coalition,
whose members include a number of big Washington-based non-profits
such as Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science
in the Public Interest. Running the coalition allowed Foreman
to maintain dual identities as both a consumer advocate and a
corporate food lobbyist. Earlier this year Foreman left her lobby
firm and returned to the Consumer Federation of America, where
she now says she favors labeling genetically engineered foods.
Another major Washington food lobbyist is Michael Jacobson,
the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, an advocacy group dubbed "the food police"
by industry for its attention-getting news conferences against
unhealthy fats and sugars in the American diet. When it comes
to biotech foods, however, CSPI has been less vigilant, failing
to oppose Monsanto's rBGH during the long struggle over its approval.
Jacobson now frets that mandatory labeling of genetically engineered
food sold in supermarkets, as called for in a bill introduced
in November by Representative Dennis Kucinich, could kill a goose
he hopes will lay genetically engineered golden eggs such as "increased
yields, reduced toxins, increased nutrient levels, and modified
fatty acid composition."
If inside-the-Beltway groups like CSPI and CFA are conflicted
and unlikely to lead the charge to gain mandatory safety testing
and consumer labeling of GE foods, who is? A broad array of seasoned
activists has been fighting this battle for a long time, among
them author Jeremy Rifkin, attorneys with the Center for Food
Safety, the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, the
National Family Farm Coalition, the Council for Responsible Genetics,
Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and the Union
of Concerned Scientists. In meetings this year a number of these
organizations and others formed the Genetic Engineering Action
Network, which is united around four objectives: mandatory safety
testing of GE foods, mandatory consumer labeling if they pass
safety tests, long-term industry liability to cover unforeseen
problems and an end to the domination of food and agriculture
by "supermarket to the world" companies.
No one involved in the US fight expects it to be quick or
easy. Says Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association,
"We have to do what Europe and Japan have done-build a powerful
organized movement of farmers, consumers and environmental activists
who will target and boycott companies." Recently the FDA
held three public hearings on genetically engineered foods. Critics
call them staged events and dog-and-pony shows, but they have
provided a media forum for advocates of safety testing and labeling.
The activists want biotech foods off the market entirely until
a rigorous system of health and ecological testing has been devised.
Like their colleagues in Europe, they are promoting the Precautionary
Principle-the common-sense maxim of "looking before you leap"-as
the basis for public policy. Adherence to the Precautionary Principle
would obviously have dire consequences for companies whose bottom-line
profits depend on selling as many biotech foods as quickly as
possible, but it seems a minimal level of protection against the
inevitable unforeseen consequences of genetically engineering
the world's food supply.
John Stauber is executive director of the Center for Media
& Democracy and founder of PR Watch, a quarterly journal that
investigates corporate and government propaganda (www.prwatch.org).
He is co-author of Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! and Mad Cow USA,
both published by Common Courage.