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Sticky but useful fruit labels

(Friday, Oct. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- This sticky bit of news just in from California puts the lie to whining by the biotech industry that it would be impractical and cost too much to label genetically modified foods.

Those little sticky labels on fruit are significant. Not only do the PLUs (Price Lookup Number) they bear help cashiers to more quickly ring up the fruit, they also reveal the growing methods of those apples, bananas, peaches, grapes or what have you. The stickers on conventionally grown bananas number 4011, on organic bananas 94011 and on the genetically modified batches it's 84011. What the Produce Electronic Identification Board can do for fruit labeling, the biotech industry, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and supermarkets can certainly do with the labeling of genetically engineered food. To see the full Philadelphia Inquirer story about PLUs, go to http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/living/food/3547139.htm

On the subject of labeling, here is another interesting piece on the PR angle of the Oregon debate over the labeling of biotech foods, via Agnet.

PR EXPERT WARNS GENE GIANTS ON NO-LABELING STANCE By PAUL HOLMES, currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of http://www.holmesreport.com: Let's say your company makes a massive technical advance, one that both improves the quality of the product you sell and has the potential to solve one of the world's most intractable problems. You'd be ready to spend millions to promote it, right? Well, not if you're in the genetically modified (GM) food business. Then you spend dollars 4.5 million on a campaign to keep your new technology secret. Faced with a ballot initiative that calls on food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients, the Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law is trying to sell Oregonians on the idea that such labeling would cost millions in 'government bureaucracy and red tape.'

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

Faced with labeling demands, the GM food industry falls back on the fact that the FDA considers labels unnecessary. After I discussed this subject in a recent column, a Monsanto rep pointed out (correctly) that the company does label its products, which it sells to farmers rather than consumers, but the FDA 'has determined that the biotech crops currently grown and subsequent ingredients don't need to be labeled because biotech food is no different than conventional food.' But, the FDA's position notwithstanding, there is clearly a segment of the public that wants to know how its food is made, and it is hard to see any moral basis on which companies would deny that right. Apparently, the increased corporate transparency we've heard about doesn't encompass this kind of information. Instead, the industry is essentially saying, 'Trust us, you don't need to know.'

But at the same time, it is also saying, 'We don't trust you. We think you're so stupid that you won't be able to use the labeling information intelligently. You're not smart enough to understand the science or to process our arguments. Instead, you will be influenced by hysterical Luddites who want to ban our product, and you won't buy it.'

But 21st-century PR isn't about controlling the flow of information or deciding what information the public has a right to. It's about putting information in context. If the GM food industry doesn't believe its PR people are smart enough to explain its products' benefits, it should either hire new PR people or get a new product.

Fighting against an informed public only creates the impression that it has a sinister secret to hide.

Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.