CAMPAIGNS: FSA contests perception of bias over GM - Issues Management

Client: Food Standards Agency PR Team: In-house Campaign: Food Standards Agency's input to GM food debate Timescale: Ongoing from July 2002 Budget: At least £30,000

Last summer, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett announced plans to fund consumer research into the controversial issue of GM food. The FSA wanted to contribute to the debate that would ensue. It published basic information on GM foods and organised various debates, but came under heavy criticism from lobby groups, including the Consumers' Association.

Objectives

To contribute to the wider, government-backed debate on the issue of GM foods. To fend off attacks that it was biased towards GM food and claims that its chairman Tom Hamilton was pro-GM.

Strategy and Plan

The FSA organised four events to gauge and track consumer opinion, focusing on consumers whose voices had remained unheard - those on low incomes and the young.

In July the agency announced its plans and published a controversial booklet and microsite. A spokeswoman claimed both set out in basic terms the elements involved in GM foods without going into 'the for and against' arguments.

But soon after this, the FSA and its chairman were accused of ignoring consumer health fears and of being biased.

In response, its press team and chairman chose four different types of media programme to defend the organisation's work, stating it was not for or against GM, but wanted to engage with consumers and provide 'materials for discussion'.

The first move was to sponsor a school debating competition among 16 to 17-year-olds, the final motion being 'This house would eat GM foods'.

The event was filmed and broadcast on the FSA website.

That was followed in April by a citizens' jury of 15 people in Slough, which debated GM food over three days, resulting in a majority in favour of GM food being available in the UK.

The FSA then provided equipment and resources for 14 to 15-year-olds from a London comprehensive to make an eight-minute film on the topic and, finally, various focus groups were organised in Scotland to provide more research.

Measurement and Evaluation

Coverage was mainly regional, but there were also features in The Guardian, along with Radio 4's Farming Today and You and Yours. Thousands watched the live internet broadcast of the citizens' jury debate over the three days, and more than 1,000 watched the jurors deliver the verdict.

This week the FSA Board held an open meeting wherein members reviewed and evaluated the range of information and views on GM food collated.

This was broadcast live on www.food.gov.uk and the agency will submit the results of the discussion to the government.

Results

In between fending off attacks of bias, the FSA has managed to spark a wider, less emotional debate around what is an incredibly complex topic.

Yet, The Guardian environment correspondent John Vidal said the FSA still has a big problem: 'The message that it is impartial does not seem to have come through, and it could try harder to redress that.'

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