Biotech food products, regulated by the FDA, have been on supermarket shelves for more than a decade, with no resulting health problerms. Unregulated dietary supplements have gained enormous popularity over the same period, despite mounting evidence of health problems associated with their use. Guess which industry the activist community wants to shut down? Paul Holmes explains why biotech is perceived as a greater risk, and how the mistakes the industry has made have contributed to an atmosphere of distrust.
The protestors were there in The Hague in January, dressed as mutant apples and mutant chickens, a small group of 20 activists whose mediagenic antics attracted more attention than a gathering of 300 leading European scientists, who had hoped, in their naiveté, to hold a serious discussion about the scientific merits of biotechnology. They were there at the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle in February, warning that WTO treaties were undermining the ability of national governments to protect their citizens from the hazards of genetically modified foods. They were there in a month later, at the industry-sponsored BIO 2000 conference in Boston, chanting, “Our genes are not for sale.”
Genetically modified food products have been part of the American food supply for more than a decade, with no reports of any ill effects. The National Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, has issued three reports on genetic engineering, finding no evidence that foods made from genetically modified (GM) crops are unsafe, and emphasizing that the process of inserting genes from one species into another was “not inherently dangerous.” That hasn’t quieted the industry’s critics, who claim that biotech foods have not been adequately tested.
There is far more evidence to suggest that another growing sector of the global food industry dietary supplements poses a real threat to human health. A recent survey by The Washington Post found that “increasing numbers of Americans are falling seriously ill or even dying after taking supplements . The victims include men and women of all ages as well as children.” Recent studies have suggested that several of the most popular supplements not only fail to provide the benefits they claim to provide, but may actually do harm.
Yet many of the same people who want to see the biotech industry closed down or at least subject to more intense regulatory scrutiny are the same people who rallied around supplement companies when regulators proposed that vitamin pills should be held to the same standards as other pharmaceutical manufacturers. A grassroots movement arose, demanding “health freedom.” Actor Mel Gibson appeared in a video in which government storm troopers confiscate bottles of vitamin C from unsuspecting consumers.
“You might expect activist pressure to change the law that exempts supplement from almost all federal regulation,” says Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist who noted the apparent paradox of attitudes toward the two industries in an article published in March. “But if the bulletin boards at natural product stores near my home are any indication, the people one might expect to campaign against an industry that is reckless with people’s health people who are willing to march against multinational corporations are among the dietary supplement industry’s most enthusiastic customers. The products are ’natural’ so they must be okay.”
If Krugman is surprised by the dramatic difference in attitudes toward the two sectors, most risk management experts are not.
“It’s not a paradox,” says Peter Sandman, founder of the Environmental Risk Communications Program at Rutgers University and one of the world’s leading authorities on risk communications. “In fact, it’s exactly what we would expect, given the nature of the two industries involved, and the way in which they have handled the issues surrounding their products.”
Sandman has identified seven factors that help turn risk into outrage. People are likely to become alarmed, Sandman says, when risk is:
- Industrial rather than natural. Natural deposits of heavy metals generate far less concern than the same materials in a Superfund site.
- Dreaded rather than not dreaded. Cancer, radiation, and waste are all terms that induce dread.
- Unknowable rather than knowable. The more experts on either side of an issue debate the risk, the more concerned the public becomes.
- Controlled by others rather than controlled by those at risk. Individuals perceive the risk of driving a car and riding in an airplane very differently.
- Coerced rather than voluntary. In home gardens, where the risk is voluntary, pesticides are typically overused.
- In the hands of untrustworthy rather than trustworthy sources. Who believes what they are told by the nuclear, waste, and pesticide industries?
- Managed in ways that are unresponsive rather than responsive. A compassionate response reduces outrage more rapidly than a contemptuous response.
“In all the time we have been studying risk, only three or four issues have scored a perfect 12 on our outrage scale,” says Sandman. “Nuclear power is one of them. Biotechnology is another.”
The most obvious contrast between biotech products and dietary supplements is that the former are clearly a product of new technology, while the latter are marketed as natural, based on herbal ingredients. The fact that something is natural does not, of course, guarantee any health benefit – hemlock, a deadly poison, is natural – but it does resonate with the public, particularly at a time when mistrust of traditional authority, including science and western medicine, is at an all time high. The idea that biotech companies are “tampering with nature,” meanwhile, plays into the growing technophobia.
“Ever since Dr. Frankenstein created his much-misunderstood monster, any attempt to modify life has been met with fear and often, outright panic,” say Harvard academics Juan Enriquez and Ray Goldberg. “People’s instinct when confronted with the possibility of generic engineering is to concentrate not on the potential benefits – cures for diseases, healthier and longer lives, more nutritious foods, less pollution – but on the potential for accidents and abuse.
“That instinct has been reinforced by the way the life-science business has evolved so far. To date, most of the products of genetic engineering have taken the form of genetically modified crops. Although many of them have made food production and distribution more efficient, they have not provided consumers with food that is significantly cheaper, safer, or tastier. Since the benefits are unclear, people naturally focus on the risks.”
Biotechnology food products first appeared on supermarket shelves in this country a little more than a decade ago, Flavr Savr tomatoes developed by biotech pioneer Celgene, capable to retaining its ripeness in all weather and shipping conditions. While the Flavr Savr was not a success, its failure was due to high prices and poor distribution, not objections to the technology, and it paved the way for other GM foods, such as the NatureMark New Leaf potato, which reportedly has better taste and built-in protection against potato pests.
Perhaps the relatively smooth introduction of GM foods in the U.S. lulled the industry into a false sense of security, because the protests that greeted biotech in Europe in the late 90s seemed to take everyone by surprise. The Europeans, still dealing with the fallout from the mad cow disease epidemic that devastated the British beef industry, do not have the same level of trust in their regulators that Americans have in the FDA, so it was easy for activist groups such as Greenpeace to convince people that GM foods had not been sufficiently tested. While 90 percent of Americans say they believe the Department of Agriculture’s statements on biotechnology, and a similar percentage has confidence in the Food & Drug Administration’s ability to protect consumers from dangerous products, only 12 percent of Europeans trust their national regulators. (The debate in Europe is also tinged with protectionism. Most GM crops are grown in the U.S., and European farmers have been among the most vocal critics of biotech foods.)
As protests escalated, European nations barred the import of certain varieties of genetically altered corn, costing American farmers about $200 million in sales, and adopted labeling laws. Similar laws are either in place or pending in Australia, Japan and South Korea. As a result, U.S. soy exports to Europe are down from around $2.1 billion in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 1999.
Today, the European Union has a de facto moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops the only exception being corn grown in Spain using technology from Novartis. Austria, Luxembourg, Italy and Greece all have total or partial bans on the technology. In the U.K., the Blair government has delayed the planting of GM crops for at least three years.
Predictably, activists have brought pressure to bear on supermarkets and restaurants companies that are more responsive to consumer concerns and have less at stake. In the U.K., supermarket chains have become almost as hysterical about genetically modified foods as consumers themselves, and a recent report by the government’s science and technology committee warned that “at the current rate at which food manufacturers are withdrawing GM ingredients from their products, there will be no market for GM food in this country.”
Kraft Foods, Nestle, Kellogg and PepsiCo are among the companies that have promised not to use GM grain in the products they sell in Europe. According to a study of 11 European nations, conducted by international consultant Healey and Baker, 61 percent of shoppers from France to Hungary said they were trying to avoid products containing genetically engineered ingredients.
Says Francois Perroud, a spokesman for Nestle, “It’s not at the level of a rational discussion any more. It’s become a battle of doctrines, of religious beliefs, of inanities.”
Even more worrying for the biotech industry is that the protests against biotech foods have spread to the U.S. market. Encouraged by the success of their counterparts in Europe, activists have become more visible in this country, calling for further study of the safety of biotech foods and for labeling. Their cause gained more attention last year when studies at Cornell University found that butterflies that ate Monsanto’s GM corn were dying. The industry says the study in question has been discredited, but its findings struck a chord with a concerned product.
As a result of consumer protests, McDonald’s has told suppliers that it won’t buy any more genetically modified potatoes, while several more upscale establishments have also rejected genetically modified ingredients. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the celebrated Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif, has told food suppliers, “Flat out, no genetic engineering.” Meanwhile, major marketers such as Seagram, Gerber and Frito-Lay have caved in to protests, and told their suppliers not to plant genetically engineered crops.
Activists have targeted Kellogg’s, too, with Greanpeace activists scaling the towering facade of Kellogg’s “Cereal City” in Battle Creek, Mich., to unveil a huge banner accusing the company of “feeding FrankenFood to America’s kids.” According to a statement issued by the environmental group, “A breakfast of Kellogg’s cereals is a breakfast of untested GMOs. Kids shouldn’t be duped by Tony the Tiger into starting each day with a scientific experiment in every bowl.”
At least a dozen companies, including Kellogg and Philip Morris, faced shareholder resolutions calling for curbs on the use of genetically modified ingredients this proxy season.
There have also been attacks on the regulatory process. According to Val Geddings, vice president at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, “No foods in history have been subject to as much analysis as these biotech foods.” But activist groups say that a 1992 FDA policy automatically qualifies GM foods as safe unless they contain material from a plant that’s commonly known to cause allergies in humans. A lawsuit by the Alliance for Bio-Integrity and the Center for Food Safety has challenged this process, calling for GM foods to be regulated under the FDA’s food additive program, which requires more testing.
“The whole framework for governing genetically engineered crops was put together by the Reagan Administration to keep the then-Democratic Congress from getting involved,” says Rebecca Goldberg, a senior scientist at Environmental Defense (the former Environmental Defense Fund). The result is that the U.S. Agriculture Department, which traditionally has been seen as an ally of farming interests rather than a consumer protection agency, evaluates the feed testing of genetically modified plants, the Environmental Protection Agency examines products that might have a pesticidal effect, and the FDA reviews GM food products.
Whether the regulatory oversight of biotech foods is sufficient, it’s certainly more stringent than the attention paid to dietary supplements.
Americans spend a total of around $4 billion dollars a year on herbal medicines, which are still unregulated by the Food & Drug Administration, are part of a “vast uncontrolled experiment,” according to Dr. Leonore Arab, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act classifies herbal medicines as supplements, not drugs. That means herbal medicines don’t have to prove their efficacy, and are not subject to FDA safety standards.
There’s about as much science behind most herbal medicines as there is behind a televangelist curing people by laying on of hands. But while most of those who turn to religious healers are poor and uneducated, dietary supplements appeal to the wealthy and well educated. Says David Frum, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, “It’s not the poor who flock to the red hills of Sedona, who pay $3 for eight ounces of fresh-squeezed carrot juice mixed with honeybee extract and green algae . Alternative medicine is now as much a part of upper middle class American life as chardonnay and BMWs.”
Complaints about dietary supplements come from the scientific and medical communities, not consumers themselves. The fact that warnings from authoritative sources go unheeded is an indication of how far the credibility of institutions has declined.
“It’s my feeling that [antidioxidants] do at least as much harm as good, and often more,” says Dr. Victor Herbert, professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Beta-carotene supplements, for example, have been found to increase the risk for lung cancer, particularly among smokers. An American Heart Association study indicated that taking as little as 500 milligrams of Vitamin C each day may speed the hardening of the arteries. Most experts have concluded that antioxidants are best obtained through food, rather than through pills.
“The dietary supplement business caught the waves of self-medication and repulsion or frustration with the medical-pharmacological-health insurance complex,” says Jan van Meter, president of the east coast operations of international public relations agency Fleishman-Hillard. “Plus, it managed to sneak under the radar of the FDA because of the way the laws and regulations are written. It’s not that the industry did anything right; they were just there when the lightening struck and played their good fortune for all it was worth.”
The Manhattan Institute’s David Frum agrees. “Alternative medicine has profited from three stunning transformations in American values and beliefs: the collapse of respect for institutional authority; the discrediting of scientific modes of thought; and the yearning for self-sufficiency.”
So while the biotech industry, which has never been linked to a single human death or illness, struggles for acceptance, the dietary supplement sector continues to grow, its customers blithely ignoring very real risks.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Sandman offers the following advice to organizations dealing with perceived risk:
- Don’t keep secrets. Be honest, forthright, and prompt in providing risk information to affected publics.
- Listen to people’s concerns. Don’t assume you know what they are, and don’t assume it doesn’t matter what they are.
- Share power. Set up community advisory boards and other vehicles for giving affected communities increased control over the risk.
- Don’t expect to be trusted. Instead of trust, aim at accountability; prepare to be challenged, and be able to prove your claims.
- Acknowledge efforts, whether technical or nontechnical. Apologize. Promise to do better. Keep the promise.
- Treat adversaries with respect (even when they are disrespectful). If they force an improvement, give them the credit rather than claiming it yourself.
“Most of the factors that lead to outrage are manageable,” says Sandman. “Most of the big risk factors are in the hands of the industry. They do not intrinsically create outrage; they create outrage because they are handled badly. And Monsanto mishandled this issue in Europe early on.”
The biotechnology industry’s approach in Europe was far from forthright, at least in the early stages. Indeed, its attitude seemed to be that American exporters could force feed any product they chose to the European market.
Bill Wadsworth, the technical manager for British supermarket chain Iceland, recalls a meeting in 1997 between European retailers and the American Soybean Association. When Wadsworth told the Americans that his customers would want to be able to choose between GM beans and non-GM beans, he was called “a backward European” and told, “European objections are irrelevant.” A few weeks later, Wadsworth had found a Brazilian grower of non-GM soybeans and was setting up a new supply chain. Almost every other supermarket in the U.K. would eventually follow suit.
“The industry didn’t go about this in a very sensitive manner,” says David Byrne, the head of health and consumer protection for the European Commission, with what sounds like typically British understatement.
The highly-visible protests by groups such as Greenpeace forced Monsanto to become more open launching a web site, investing millions in a corporate advertising campaign but by then the company’s strategy had already backfired.
“The question is not whether Monsanto got it wrong, but what its big mistake was,” says Sandman. “Was it that they were so secretive early on, that they were disinclined to engage? Or was it that when they decided to engage in a dialogue, when they started running ads, they were too candid? There are people in Monsanto, and in the biotechnology industry over here, who take that view, and who believe that if the company had continued with its earlier, disingenuous strategy, it would have won the day. I hold the opposite view.”
Sandman believes that the biotech industry should have engaged its critics much earlier in the process, acknowledging that there were legitimate concerns about biotechnology, but emphasizing the enormous benefits if biotech can live up to its promise.
“The best way to get a new technology introduced is to make it indispensable before anyone knows it’s out there,” says Sandman. “If that strategy is successful, it’s always the easiest course, at least from a pragmatic perspective. The problem is, that’s a strategy that is always successful right up to the moment in blows up in your face, and when it blows up it destroys you, because people respond to lack of candor. When they are confronted with the possibility that someone misled them, they don’t move toward the middle, they get angry and they over-react.
“Candor is the second best strategy. It doesn’t always work. But the good thing about candor is that if it doesn’t work, the worst thing that happens is that people reject the technology. You may lose the technology, but you won’t lose your reputation. Even if you don’t win the debate, people don’t hate you.”
Why did Monsanto try the stealth route?
“My feeling is that the industry didn’t believe its own propaganda,” says Sandman. “Internally, biotech executives were saying that the advantages of this new technology were so huge that they made the risks acceptable. If they really believed their own assessment, they would have presented this technology to the people and allowed the people to decide. They would have explained all the potential benefits, and all the risks, and I believe people would have accepted the risks. But the industry didn’t believe it, and so they risked everything on a strategy of secrecy.”
Monsanto’s new openness in Europe is mirrored by the industry’s renewed enthusiasm for communication in this country. At the Bio 2000 conference, many scientists led by Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research attacked the industry for its failure to communicate its position. Said Lander, “The industry ought to be out in front on the issues instead of behind them . We don’t have the public trust on this.
A week later, the biotechnology industry hired BSMG Worldwide, an international public affairs company, to create a $50 million advertising and PR campaign. Life sciences companies such as Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis have joined forces with food companies and the Grocery Manufacturers of America to educate consumers.
“The GM people have got to change the dialogue to center on the need to feed people, and the need for cheaper and more plentiful food worldwide,” says Van Meter. “I’d start pulling allies out of the UN and the Third World. All natural may be a nice ideal for western liberals, but it’s a luxury that can’t be afforded in most of the world.”
But most of the industry’s energies appear to be directed toward fighting mandatory labeling. The Alliance for Better Foods, an organization underwritten by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, provides a summary of the objections to labeling at its web site, www.betterfoods.org:
- “Labels provide a consumer’s first impression of most packaged food products . Information considered essential to health and safety is mandated by law to appear on the label.
- “Labels on food identifying the presence of ingredients derived through biotechnology could unduly alarm consumers about potential safety risks. In fact, the FDA and the manufacturer must address any potential safety risks of a food product before the product enters the marketplace and, if a problem exists, the food will not be marketed or will be labeled to identify the safety risk.
- “Labeling of biotech foods differently from their traditional counterparts would have the unintended and unfortunate consequence of misleading consumers into thinking that biotech products have different health effects. This would lead to the kind of confusion that labels are designed to avoid.”
But the evidence, including several consumer surveys, suggests otherwise. More than half (53 percent) those questioned by the Gallup Organization last year said they didn’t believe that biotech foods posed any health hazard, compared to just 27 percent who expressed safety concerns, but more than two thirds (68 percent) said GM products should be labeled, even if doing so raises grocery prices. In other words, even those who don’t believe biotech foods pose any danger support labeling suggesting the issue is about choice rather than risk.
Gene Grabowski, vice president of corporate communications for the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America doesn’t buy it. “We have been conducting surveys on a regular basis since the middle of last year,” he says, “and our findings suggest that most people would see any kind of label as a warning label. In February 68 percent said they would see it as a warning. Because consumers are so unfamiliar with biotech foods, and are still learning about them, labeling would drive them away from these products.”
But biotech companies have had more than a decade to educate consumers about genetically modified foods. Given that they have failed to do so, it seems unreasonable to complain that the public doesn’t understand the issue.
Says Grabowski, “I think the case can be made that the biotech industry could have done a better job of educating people about its product a few years ago. But that should not serve as an excuse to kill the promise of biotech.” To underscore the extent of confusion over genetically modified organisms, he points to research conducted in the United Kingdom. When asked whether natural, organically-grown foods contained genes, the majority of consumers said they did not, an indication of the mystery that still surrounds gene science.
“Mandatory labeling would be an anti-choice move,” Grabowski insists. “In Great Britain, they introduced mandatory labeling and the result was that biotech products were simply taken off the shelves. Rather than having a choice between biotech foods and non-biotech foods, consumers have no choice. That’s why we support voluntary labeling. Producers such as Frito-Lay can label their products biotech free, and give consumers a choice.”
But with at least 60 percent of food products containing some GM ingredients from corn syrup in colas to salad oils and margarines it seems unlikely that many consumers would take the time to seek out non-GM products.
Says Sandman, “What the biotech industry is worried about is that manufacturers would simply stop buying GM corn or GM soy, because they feared a public backlash. I think consumers would accept GM foods over time. I think that eventually non-GM foods would be a niche market, like kosher. But if food companies are worried about the public reaction to labeling, consumers may never get to make that choice.”
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