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Biotech food flacks: Canadian consumer group goes to bat for biotech. (Consumer Rights).

Canadian consumers can be forgiven for being cynical about biotechnology. After all, it's hard to know whom to trust when there's no clear line between the biotech industry, government and organizations that claim to be on the side of consumers.

Canadians are wary of genetically modified (GM) foods being promoted aggressively by the biotech industry. National polls show that more than 90 percent of Canadians want food made with GM ingredients to be labeled, to provide consumers the choice of whether or not to purchase them. In response, the biotech industry has favored voluntary labeling schemes that fail to guarantee that consumers will know whether or not their groceries are GM-free.

Charles Caccia, a member of Parliament from the governing Liberal Party, hoped to do something about consumers' concern. He tried to pass a law in 2001 that would have required mandatory labeling of GM foods. But as his bill began gaining support from all corners of Parliament, the biotech industry rallied powerful Liberal allies to quash the initiative.

The heavy-handed tactics of the industry and key government officials to head off Caccia's bill is not surprising. The Canadian government is deeply supportive of the biotech industry, ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and promoting biotech each year. For example, Canada's foreign aid bureau, the Canadian International Development Agency, recently spent $280,000 to promote genetically modified corn in China. The Department of Industry, between 1994 to 2000, gave the industry lobby group BIOTECanada $6 million to improve the image of biotechnology. And nowhere is the government's probiotech bias more evident than at the federal Department of Agriculture. The department houses the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, charged with both regulating biotech foods and acting as major promoter and financial booster of the industry, which places the agency in an untenable conflict of interest.

What is perhaps more surprising than the government-industry alliance on biotech is the two parties' ability to bring a third force into the coalition: the Consumers Association of Canada (CAC).

The CAC is one of the Agriculture Department's favorite recipients of biotech subsidies. Until recently, the Department even financed a CAC staff position on biotech issues.

In the past, Jenny Hillard, formerly the national vice president of issues and policy at the CAC, has said the organization favors the industry position of voluntary labeling. The organization's current president, Mel Fruitman, is slightly more equivocal. "We want labeling, but how that labeling is to occur is another question," he says.

In failing to call for mandatory labeling, the CAC is virtually alone among consumer groups active on the issue. Mandatory labeling is advocated by the organization's global affiliate, Consumer's International, which has groups in 115 countries worldwide. Even some of the CAC's own provincial wings oppose the national office's position.

Bruce Cran, a member of the CAC's national board of directors from the province of British Columbia, says CAC affiliates like the BC Consumers' Association oppose voluntary labeling schemes. "We disagree with national on that one," he says. "You've got to have a mandatory policy." He says the national office hopes that voluntary labeling may eventually lead to mandatory labeling, a position that "has n't gotten us anywhere so far."

The CAC's position on labeling, combined with its tight relationship with biotech companies and federal agencies that have been promoting GM technology, have led many to criticize the CAC as an industry front group.

The organization has received support from biotech companies such as Monsanto, and the organization's former spokesperson on biotech issues, Lee Ann Murphy, left the CAC to work for the company.

Documents obtained through Canada's Access to Information Act by Ottawa-based researcher Bradford Duplisea also suggest that among the $1.3 million in government assistance given to the CAC between 1997 and 2002, the group was given a grant in 2000 to conduct market research to help the biotech industry sell its message and image better to Canadian consumers.

Among the aims of the project, according to the proposal submitted by the CAC, were to "assess the accessibility, readability, transparency and accuracy" of industry biotechnology information sources, "identify industry perceptions about consumer concerns and needs," and "recommend changes in approach and communication styles." Internal departmental briefings state the CAC wanted to do the project because "the CAC thinks consumers don't really know what biotechnology is."

The $82,000 grant came from two government sources, the Industry Department's Office of Consumer Affairs and the Agriculture Department's Agri-Food Trade program. Normally, the program is a matching program, meaning that at least one quarter of the funding for a project must come from sources outside government. Because the grant was fully funded by government sources, bureaucrats had to gain special approval from senior departmental officials.

One departmental bureaucrat expressed concern about the proposal, stating, "I don't think this proposal fails under the scope of AFT2000, which is, I believe, export oriented." He further noted that "the current AFT2000 budget is badly oversubscribed. For this reason, I am suggesting that the department pass on this proposal."

However, another document states that the project "is a priority for the DM's [Deputy Minister's] office," and it is clear from departmental correspondence that senior officials were geared toward approving it. The Deputy Minister is the most senior bureaucrat in the department.

Other departmental staff were leery about the pro-industry bias of the project, or at least the appearance of bias. "I'm concerned about the slant of the proposal," stated a Communications Branch official when the proposal was being assessed. "That line about the CAC 'working with the biotechnology industry' kind of imperils their 'third-party' status, doesn't it?"

Quotes by the official reveal the cozy relationship between the department, industry and the CAC, and how they view the CAC's role in stage managing the biotech debate. "I would want the piece redrafted so that the reader understands that first and foremost the CAC's interest is that of the consumer. It's okay that the CAC's findings would be of interest to the biotechnology industry, and it's OK to expect that people in the biotechnology industry would see it as in their interests to cooperate with CAC researchers, but the overall impression should be that the goal is to benefit consumers."

Another official from the Research Branch wrote, "Having a third party group like the CAC with no vested interest in biotech, plan and carry out the research lends credibility to the results. The fact that this is consumers doing consumer research is not only optically positive, but substantially positive as well."

"The public is mistrusting of biotech business, which they see as pursuing the profit motive exclusively," she added. "The research and review by CAC on the type of information that is available to consumers will help biotech companies to determine if the industry has done all it can to supply consumers with relevant information to enhance consumer understanding of food biotechnology."

The project examined several information sources, and asked focus groups to provide feedback on how to tailor each one better. The first source was a booklet entitled "A Growing Appetite for Information," funded by Agriculture Canada and published by the CAC and the Food Biotechnology Communications Network, one of several industry-funded information dissemination groups. While the pamphlet bills itself as a "bias-free zone" on biotech issues in Canada, and it lists several organizations that advocate mandatory GM labeling, it strongly emphasizes the benefits of various biotech products, and parrots the industry line advocating voluntary labeling.

The second information source, AGWest Biotech, has as its official mandate to "initiate, promote and support the growth of Saskatchewan's agricultural biotechnology industries.

The study also examined Agriculture Canada's information material. Perhaps not surprisingly, focus group participants felt that "government had a tendency to present only certain pieces of information rather than make all information available to the consumer so they could make their own decisions," a sentiment that is at the heart of the GM labeling debate.

Spokespeople at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada had no comment on the market research project.

CAC President Mel Fruitman says his organization receives "very little" government support. He was not familiar with the project, which was conducted before he began his tenure at the organization. After being given information on the project, he said that while he did not know who was involved in the project, "there may be a distinction between the objectives of the organization and the objectives of certain individuals."

Both government and industry have invested huge sums on biotech. It's a gamble they are hoping will pay off, but it won't if consumers mistrust the technology and the players promoting it. Canada's Team Biotech hopes they can win through a massive PR initiative, but the cozy relationships and revolving doors between watchdogs, regulators and the regulated will likely only serve to make consumers even more wary.

Aaron Freeman is an Ottawa-based writer and a columnist with The Hill Times, Canada's parliamentary newspaper.
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Title Annotation:Consumers Association of Canada
Author:Freeman, Aaron
Publication:Multinational Monitor
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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