INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - GM PROs shouldn't underestimate an informed public

GM food producers should use PR to better communicate with the public and not seek to control the flow of information reaching consumers, writes US commentator Paul Holmes

Let's say your company makes a major technical advance, one that not only improves the quality of the product you are selling but also has the potential to solve one of the world's most intractable problems.

You'd probably want to spend millions of pounds to promote that advance, right? Well, not if you're in the GM food business. Then you spend £2.9m on a campaign to keep your new technology secret.

Faced with a ballot initiative that would call on food firms to label products that contain GM ingredients, the US-based Coalition Against the Costly Labelling Law is trying to sell people in Oregon the idea that such labelling would cost millions in 'government bureaucracy and red tape'.

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

Faced with demands for labelling, the GM food industry falls back on the fact that the Food & Drug Administration considers labels unnecessary.

After I touched on this subject in a recent column, a Monsanto representative wrote to me to point out (correctly) that the company does label its products, which it sells to farmers rather than consumers, but that the FDA 'has determined that the biotech crops currently grown and subsequent ingredients do not need to be labelled because biotech food is no different than conventional food'.

But, the FDA's position notwithstanding, there is clearly a segment of the population that wants to know how its food is manufactured and it is hard to see any moral basis on which firms would deny that information.

The industry is saying,'Trust us, you don't need to know'. But at the same time, it is also saying 'We don't trust you. We don't think you'll be able to use the labelling information intelligently'.

However PR in the 21st century is not about controlling the flow of information, it's about putting information in context. If the GM food industry doesn't believe its PR people are smart enough to explain the benefits of its product, it should either hire new PROs or get a new product.

Continuing to fight against an informed public only creates the impression that it has some sinister secret to hide.

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