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 [see Kristi Coale, facing page]. 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, their 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 “fearmongering” 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.