ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

9 October 2002


1. PR Expert Warns Gene Giants on No-Labeling Stance
2. Donations show which measures scare
3. Novartis face lawsuit on South African apartheid links


PR Expert Warns Gene Giants on No-Labeling Stance

PR Week (US), October 7, 2002


By PAUL HOLMES, currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

Let's say your company makes a massive technical advance, one that both improves the quality of the product you sell and has the potential to solve one of the world's most intractable problems. You'd be ready to spend millions to promote it, right? Well, not if you're in the genetically modified (GM) food business. Then you spend dollars 4.5 million on a campaign to keep your new technology secret. Faced with a ballot initiative that calls on food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients, the Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law is trying to sell Oregonians on the idea that such labeling would cost millions in 'government bureaucracy and red tape.'

The campaign's premise is a lie, of course. The industry isn't concerned about red tape - or if it is, it's a secondary issue. What truly worries the industry - the reason it has resisted labeling since GM foods were introduced a decade ago - is that consumers will select unmodified foods if given a choice. So the campaign is about denying them that choice, but calling the group the Coalition Against Informed Consumers probably sounded like a bad idea.

Faced with labeling demands, the GM food industry falls back on the fact that the FDA considers labels unnecessary. After I discussed this subject in a recent column, a Monsanto rep pointed out (correctly) that the company does label its products, which it sells to farmers rather than consumers, but the FDA 'has determined that the biotech crops currently grown and subsequent ingredients don't need to be labeled because biotech food is no different than conventional food.'

But, the FDA's position notwithstanding, there is clearly a segment of the public that wants to know how its food is made, and it is hard to see any moral basis on which companies would deny that right. Apparently, the increased corporate transparency we've heard about doesn't encompass this kind of information. Instead, the industry is essentially saying, 'Trust us, you don't need to know.'

But at the same time, it is also saying, 'We don't trust you. We think you're so stupid that you won't be able to use the labeling information intelligently. You're not smart enough to understand the science or to process our arguments. Instead, you will be influenced by hysterical Luddites who want to ban our product, and you won't buy it.'

But 21st-century PR isn't about controlling the flow of information or deciding what information the public has a right to. It's about putting information in context. If the GM food industry doesn't believe its PR people are smart enough to explain its products' benefits, it should either hire new PR people or get a new product.

Fighting against an informed public only creates the impression that it has a sinister secret to hide.

- Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.


A political barometer: Donations show which measures scare whom

October 2
In July, Bill Lunch, an Oregon State University political scientist who  monitors Oregon campaigns, predicted that Measure 23 would be the  subject of the most expensive ballot measure campaign in state history.  Insurance companies and other opponents would spend as much as $10  million to defeat the Health Care for All Oregon initiative, Lunch said.
That hasn't happened. Instead, the big-money proposal on the November  ballot is proving to be Measure 27, which would require the labeling of  genetically engineered foods sold in Oregon. Opponents have raised $4.6  million to fight the measure, according to campaign finance documents  filed Monday - more than 10 times as much as has been collected by  opponents of the universal health care plan. The Measure 27 campaign is  well on its way toward becoming the most costly Oregon has ever seen.

 Spending on ballot measure campaigns is a reliable barometer of  sentiment among any affected interests that have the ability to raise  lots of money. A costly campaign against a measure is a sure sign that  they see it as a threat, and that they take the threat seriously. Lunch  is probably not the only Oregonian surprised to find a seemingly modest  food labeling measure judged as a far bigger threat than a proposal to  scrap the entire health care finance system and replace it with a  single-payer plan.
There is a campaign against Measure 23 - opponents, mostly health  insurance companies, have raised a little more than $400,000 to fight  the proposal. That's nearly 20 times as much as supporters have raised.  But if the insurance companies and related interests saw a real threat  from Measure 23, they'd spend millions to kill it.
Instead, the campaign against Measure 27 has drawn the big money -  mostly from companies that produce and market genetically engineered  food products, with an assist from a trade association representing  grocers. Supporters have raised a little more than $25,000, about a  half-percent as much as the opponents. The campaign finance reports  suggest that opponents fear Measure 27, and that they think it could  pass even without much of a vote-yes campaign.

Such fears may be justified. People want to know what's in their food.  Any campaign to deny this information to consumers must overcome the  suspicion that opponents of labeling have something to hide. The  no-on-27 campaign faces the challenge of convincing Oregonians that  labeling would be burdensome, expensive and unnecessary. Getting voters  to accept that message won't be cheap.
Opponents also understand that more than Oregon's relatively small food  market is at stake. The Measure 27 campaign takes place against the  backdrop of rising global concern about genetically engineered foods.
From Europe to Africa to Asia, genetically modified foods are  encountering demands for testing, regulation and even bans. The United  States has been largely immune to this concern, despite the fact that an  estimated 70 percent of products on American grocery shelves now contain  at least some genetically modified ingredients. To opponents, Measure 27  looks like the spark from a distant brushfire that has blown into their  own back yards, and that must be stamped out before it spreads.


3. Novartis, Sulzer face lawsuit on South African apartheid links


US attorney Ed Fagan filed a consolidated class action suit in New York against Novartis AG and Sulzer AG, amongst others, on behalf of victims of South Africa's former apartheid regime.

Fagan, who in 1998 forced Swiss Banks into a $1.25 billion settlement for victims of the Holocaust, is now accusing the banks of financing the former apartheid regime through investments and debt restructuring, Heeb said.

The other companies named in the new class action suit had allegedly exploited the black majority by taking advantage of the discriminating racial laws, Heeb continued.

Fagan also filed a suit in New Jersey targeting, amongst others, Nestle and Roche, and additional suits are being prepared, Heeb added.


4. WFP says seeks non-GM food aid for Zambia

October 7, 2002

LUSAKA - The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) was cited as saying on Monday that 12,000 tonnes of GM-free maize had begun arriving in Zambia and the agency was seeking another 16,000 tonnes from within southern Africa. Zambia, one of six countries in the region battling severe food shortages, banned all genetically-modified food aid in August, citing health concerns.

The story says that the ban remains in place until the government establishes through its own tests if GM foods are safe for human consumption. Aid agencies have been scrambling to find GM-free food aid for the country.

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