BARELY A KERNEL OF TRUTH
Here's a Thomas Hoban article in the Washington Post. Terribly reassuring on 'Tacogate' - indeed, according to the title of the piece, 'There Is Barely A Kernal of Truth' in any concerns over Starlink .
The article even suggest the EPA didn't know what they were doing when they banned Starlink from the human food chain - according to Hoban, it's just more corn (an argument that would presumably hold even if they'd put a gene for anthrax in it!) - while concerned environmental groups like Greenpeace are dismissed as simply opposing "most modern agricultural methods".
Hoban is described by the Washington Post as "a professor of food science and sociology at North Carolina State University" who "chairs a nationwide university task force on educating consumers about biotechnology"
In fact, Hoban's a GM zealot - a doyen of Prakash's list - who specialises in GM spin, particularly in the form of consumer-surveyed opinion.
In a brilliant exposé Karen Charman of PR Watch pulled Hoban's work to pieces. http://www.prwatch.org/99-Q4/hoban.html#start
Tom Hoban is a man with a mission: to convince people to embrace genetically
engineered food... Industry promoters widely regard Hoban as the pre-eminent
expert in consumer attitudes on gene-altered food, and he is listed in
several industry source guides for journalists. Over the
last ten years, he has conducted a number of government- and industry-funded surveys, which he says consistently show "two-thirds to three-quarters of U.S. consumers are positive about food
* * *
Hoban says he helped design the questions in a much-touted consumer survey conducted for the International Food Information Council (IFIC) but carried out by the Republican political and polling firm, the Wirthlin Group.
The survey was first done in March 1997 and then repeated in February 1999, ostensibly so that a trend could be established. Besides trumpeting strong support for genetically engineered food, the nine-question survey indicates that consumer awareness of biotech food is low. It also claims there is little support for labeling biotech foods.
The problem with the survey, however, is that the questions it asked are loaded with language designed to bias the answers.
"How likely would you be to buy a variety of produce, like tomatoes or potatoes, if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher?"
"How likely would you be to buy a variety of produce . . . if it had been modified by biotechnology to be protected from insect damage and required fewer pesticide applications?"
"Biotechnology has also been used to enhance plants that yield foods like cooking oils. . . . Would this have a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect on your purchase decision?"
"Some critics . . . say that any food produced through biotechnology
should be labeled even if the food has the same safety and nutritional
content as other foods. However, others, including the FDA, believe such
a labeling requirement has no scientific basis, and would be costly and
confusing to consumers. Are you more likely to agree with the labeling
position of the FDA or with
* * *
James Beniger, a communications professor at the University of Southern California and past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, reviewed the IFIC survey and said it is so biased with leading questions favoring positive responses that any results are meaningless.
UCLA communications professor Michael Suman agreed, adding that the
questions "only talk about the food tasting better, being fresher, protecting
food from insect damage, reducing saturated fat and providing benefits.
It's like saying 'Here's biotechnology, it does these great things for
you, do you like it?'" The results might be different, Suman offers,
if it contained questions biased in the other direction such as: "Some
people contend that some foods produced from biotechnology cause higher
rates of cancer. If that is so, what effect would that have on your
* * *
Tacogate: There Is Barely A Kernel of Truth - by Thomas
The Washington Post - 26 November 2000
It's been amazing to watch the chain of events unfolding since StarLink, a genetically modified variety of corn used in animal feed but not yet approved for human consumption, was found in American-made taco shells.
Domestically, thousands of the shells have been stripped from store shelves in a recall that was widened last week to include more than 1.4 million pounds of corn flour and other baking ingredients.
Overseas, the Japanese government has reported with alarm that the corn has been found in imported American products. With all the hue and cry, you'd think a dangerous, if not deadly, ingredient had been introduced into the U.S. and international food supply. But what's the startling discovery the alarm-raisers have made?
Hold onto your seats, folks: Our corn, it seems, has been contaminated by - corn! For all its ominous overtones, the StarLink incident has very little to do with science and safety. Instead, it's the latest skirmish in an ongoing conflict between environmental groups and the biotechnology industry.
Mediated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has questionable credentials for regulating food safety, it has frightened consumers, placed undue burdens on farmers and caused a needless, and ultimately irresponsible, uproar.
StarLink, developed by the French-based drug company Aventis, is really no different from other corn, except for the addition of a gene that produces an insect-fighting protein. Corn had already been dramatically modified from the "natural" plant originally found in the wild. Those ancient ears of corn were the size of your little finger and looked more like grass than modern yellow corn.
Over the ages, crossbreeding and, more recently, forced mutation, has produced the ear of corn we eat today. StarLink, with its one gene added to the approximately 60,000 in this modern ear, represents a very modest, precise change by comparison. StarLink has not been approved for human consumption because of concern that its new protein may cause human allergies. Food allergy specialists have questioned this, pointing out that it's virtually impossible for anyone to have an existing allergy to a protein that would be completely new to the human diet, and that the corn, planted on only 1 percent of U.S. corn acreage, would be present in food products at extremely low levels.
Steve Taylor, head of the University of Nebraska's department of food science and technology and a leading expert on food allergens, believes "there is virtually no risk associated with the ingestion of StarLink corn in this situation."
But fear of allergenicity is the reason the EPA has limited StarLink to use as animal feed. It has become the crux of the battle over StarLink, and the justification for the scare campaign that led to the recent product recalls.
Yet it's unclear why the EPA, rather than the Food and Drug Administration, is calling the shots on StarLink's allergy-causing potential. The original discovery of StarLink corn in taco shells produced by Kraft Foods was no accident. It was the result of a fishing expedition by a coalition of environmental groups, led by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, that aim to discredit the regulatory system and damage consumer confidence in the biotech industry.
These groups, which oppose most modern agricultural methods, hired a testing company to analyze more than two dozen processed foods specifically for traces of StarLink. The taco shells were the only place where they found what they were looking for. These protest groups have been waging an aggressive fear campaign against multinational biotechnology companies for years - first in Europe, now in North America.
Their main strategy for preventing biotechnology from reaching the market
is to attack the food industry. They call for consumer boycotts of food
companies and supermarkets. But these rarely
materialize because, as research shows, most Americans support new developments in science and technology.
I've studied the social impact of biotechnology for more than a decade. My own research and that of others has documented that between two-thirds and three-quarters of U.S. consumers support agricultural biotechnology and welcome its benefits, especially the reduced use of pesticides.
This support was still evident in a survey I conducted right after the StarLink news broke. In it, 67 percent of consumers said they would continue to consume biotech products that had been engineered to resist insects, and only 3 percent said biotechnology was their most serious concern about food safety.
It's fair to say that Aventis should not have proceeded to market its corn without being sure it could be kept separate from approved varieties. This is, in fact, extremely difficult to guarantee. Our modern farm and food system is designed to be efficient and to keep food costs low, not to keep individual varieties of crops strictly segregated. A couple of years ago, in fact, Aventis was reportedly warned not to make a biotech soybean commercially available because farmers knew it would be impossible to keep it out of the export market, for which it had not been approved. But the company clearly wanted to establish a presence in the fiercely competitive market for agricultural biotechnology.
Other companies have already received full approvals for biotech seeds, including corn not very different from StarLink, that are being widely used by North American farmers. Perhaps the most troublesome and confusing aspect of the controversy is the government role. Like many others involved in biotechnology, I was concerned to learn that it was the EPA, not the FDA, that granted StarLink partial approval while expressing doubts about its allergenic potential.
The agency best equipped to deal with food allergens is clearly the FDA, which has a long track record in the area. Yet the EPA asserted regulatory control under the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, which expanded EPA's authority over pesticides. Because StarLink resists insects, the agency claimed jurisdiction with an interesting interpretation - treating a plant not as a plant, but as a pesticide. The EPA may hope to be a big player in the biotech arena, but most experts agree it should not be regulating food safety. The EPA has plenty to do regulating the ecological impact of bioengineered plants, which is the greatest biotechnology-related concern of most scientists.
It should concentrate its efforts on that and resist power grabs of the StarLink variety. Appropriately, the agency has recently come under increasing criticism from the food, agriculture and scientific communities for its handling of the StarLink episode and for introducing interagency politics into the issue.
Biotechnology represents a powerful set of tools that will have a significant
impact on society over the next century. New biotechnology products provide
important benefits, including reduced use
of chemical pesticides and enhanced vitamin and iron content that will help prevent childhood blindness and other problems in developing countries. Because it is so powerful, however, society should be able to control this new technology. Biotech crops do undergo extensive safety and nutrition testing, and biotechnology has been shown to be as safe or safer than traditional breeding practices, which have been used for decades without any formal testing or regulation.
In an interview last January, FDA Commissioner Jane Henney said her agency has seen "no evidence that the bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or are in any way less safe than crops produced through traditional breeding."
The main lesson of StarLink is that no new agricultural product should be made commercially available until it has received approval for human consumption. All parties now agree to this, so there's hope we won't see this kind of problem again. But while companies are expected to be responsible, the activist groups that oppose them and the government agencies that regulate them also need to act responsibly. It's not reasonable to demand "zero risk" from any technology, nor to hold biotechnology to unreasonably high standards. We must also be careful not to impose higher costs on all consumers.
Opponents who call for mandatory labeling of all foods with biotech ingredients do so mainly as a means of launching a further attack on the industry. The FDA already requires nutritional and health labeling, and research has shown that a simple statement that a food "contains genetically modified ingredients" would serve chiefly to confuse and alarm consumers. The casualties in the war between the biotechnology industry and its opponents are farmers, food companies and consumers. Most of us have enough daily concerns without being frightened into thinking the food we're eating is dangerous. Food companies and farmers face serious threats from low profit margins, industry consolidation and global competition. With all this to worry about, a scare like StarLink is the last thing that any of us needs.
Thomas Hoban, a professor of food science and sociology at North Carolina
State University, chairs a nationwide university task force on educating
consumers about biotechnology.
November 26, 2000