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BIO 2001 International Biotechnology Conference &
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June 23 – 27, 2001

On the road for Info.Resource, publisher of Oregon-Bioscience.com

By Lorraine Ruff, David Gabrilska and Scott Sipes
Milestones, the critical thinking company
Seattle, WA

"The biotechnology industry has a public relations problem," said Wyatt Andrews, a national correspondent with CBS News, who participated in a panel on the public’s perception of risks and benefits associated with genetically modified (GM) foods. "That’s because the benefits of GM foods – which now account for about 50 percent of the processed food available at the supermarket – first came to the industry and farmers vs. the consumer," he said.

The PR problem manifests itself in different ways at inopportune times. According to Steve Burrill, author of Biotech 2001 Life Sciences: Genomics, proteomics…and more that was released at the convention, the "industry [in connection with the StarLink™ corn incident earlier this year] did not have an adequate infrastructure to differentiate between genetically modified organism (GMO) crops and non-GMO crops. The price tag for learning this lesson: a billion dollars.

Andrews pointed out that in his reporting he’s become very much aware that protestors resent the appearance of "corporate control of their lives. John Q. believes that there is regulation of GM foods and that regulators wouldn’t allow them on the shelf if they weren’t ‘okay,’ " he said.

How to win over the public perception regarding GM foods: a checklist for industry - Wyatt Andrews, National Correspondent, CBS News
  1. "You are fighting visceral fears," Andrews pointed out, and Hollywood has taken up the role of educator in Jurassic Park [I] when the chaosist character, played by Jeff Goldblum, points out that even though the bioengineered dinosaurs were designed to not produce, "nature will find a way." Andrews observed that "there have been bad outcomes" and that "science doesn’t necessarily have control. StarLinkTM corn served to prove that," he said.

  2. The industry needs to engage in some serious work on demonstrable case histories that report delivered benefits of the technology, e.g., "Golden Rice." Rice, which accounts for 80 percent of the world’s diet, does not contain Vitamin A, an essential nutrient. Vitamin A deficiency causes blindness in 124 million children throughout the world and 1 million cases of blindness in children worldwide. Andrews added that the industry is spending millions of dollars promoting the prospective benefits of vitamin A enriched golden rice, "but where’s the golden rice? You guys need to get it [out of the lab] and to the people. Nothing will compare to a child munching on banana chips that have been engineered as anti-malarials or seniors who use heart-healthy oil," he said.

  3. The public debate is not always shaped by science but rather by what people want," he said referencing the controversial labeling of GM foods, an issue that represents one of the steepest divides between industry ag biotech proponents and GM protesters. "I know there are many of you that have cautioned your clients to resist labeling. But respectfully, may I suggest that you may be over-thinking this one," he said, predicting that the "second you label GM foods, you’ll be proactively dealing with the public’s perception about GM foods. You’ve got to engage the debate," he said.


But in recent months, that’s changed. According to panelist Michael Rodemeyer, executive director for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, while "Americans are more aware of genetically modified food than they were six months ago, confidence in the ability of government regulators to manage these products is mixed," he reported, referencing a Zogby International poll released in June by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (see: Michael Rodemeyer BIO 2001 presentation).

"The national level of awareness is a notable increase of 11 percent from an earlier study conducted for the Initiative by the Mellman Group/Public Opinion Strategies in January 2001, when fewer than half, 44 percent, of respondents reported hearing a ‘great deal’ or ‘some’ about genetically modified foods," Rodemeyer said.

"The Zogby poll also revealed that consumers have mixed confidence in the government’s ability to manage genetically modified foods, following last fall’s recall of products contaminated with StarLink™ corn -- a type of genetically modified corn approved only for use in animal feed that accidentally made its way into the human food supply. More than half of respondents, or 52 percent, said they were very or somewhat confident that government regulators can manage genetically modified foods and ensure consumer safety, while 45 percent said they were not too confident or not at all confident in the government."

Last month, government scientists concluded that they found no evidence that linked allergic reactions to StarLink™ corn. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested the blood of 17 people who believed they had ingested the bioengineered corn to see if the corn had raised antibodies to the suspected allergen. Inasmuch as no antibodies were found, the agencies concluded that none of the people had had immune reactions to the corn protein, cry9c.

The Zogby International poll also suggested that consumers may be more likely to hear about product recalls and generally negative information about genetically modified food than supportive studies. By comparison, the January poll found that 57 percent of people surveyed had heard about the StarLinkTM recall. In contrast, only a little more than one-third (36 percent) of respondents had heard about the June 14, 2001 Centers for Disease Control report finding no evidence that StarLinkTM corn caused allergic reactions in the 28 cases they had investigated.

"Given the U.S. experience with StarLinkTM product recalls, it is not surprising that some consumers are questioning the government’s ability to handle these products even in the absence of any demonstrated harm," said Rodemeyer. "We must try to learn from Europe, where governments lost credibility in their ability to handle food safety, and work to ensure that our own government agencies are up to the task of appropriately regulating this new, promising technology."

Panelist Jennifer Sosin, senior managing director of KRC Research, a public opinion company that polls for the industry-funded Council for Biotechnology Information, reported that a recent survey demonstrated that "the more information consumers had on the benefits of GM foods, the more likely they were to support GM foods."

Rodemeyer concurred and added:

"Despite the heated national debate about agricultural biotechnology, our research shows that most Americans do not have strong or well-informed opinions about this new technology," Rodemeyer said. "Interesting to note is that after hearing that more than half of the foods on supermarket shelves are genetically modified, one in five of those who initially said GM foods are unsafe changed their minds.

"Essentially, public opinion is ‘up for grabs’ because this new technology has moved faster than the public’s ability to fully understand it and its implications," he said.

Additional Resources:

Perception studies in the public domain concerning GMO


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