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Which Way, CFA?


Russell Mokhiber 

and Robert Weissman

The

Consumer Federation of America is at a crossroads. Set up in 1968 to advocate in

Washington, D.C. for consumer interests, the Federation is being consumed by

Washington’s corporate culture. Will it seek to reverse course and get back to

its consumer roots? Or will it become just another corporate front group?

Perhaps

the hottest consumer issue of the next few years, genetically engineered (GE)

foods, will severely test its resolve.

Who’s

in charge of this issue at Federation? None other than Carol Tucker Foreman, who

during the previous decade worked as a lobbyist for Monsanto, making sure that

the highly controversial genetically engineered bovine growth hormone made it

into our milk supply without labeling.

"We

see no evidence that Foreman represents anyone other than herself," says

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association.

"And we resent the fact that the media describes Foreman as a leading

spokesperson for American consumers on food safety issues."

But

President Clinton sees it differently. Last month, the Clinton/Gore

administration nominated Foreman to be the U.S. "consumer advocate" to

the Biotech Consultative Forum, a group formed at the behest of the biotech

industry.

The

Forum, dominated by experts partial to the industry, will prepare a report for

the December 2000 U.S.-European Union summit.

John

Stauber, managing editor of the Madison, Wisconsin-based PR Watch, says that the

problem for the biotech industry is that GE foods were pushed onto the market

too fast. The result: a political and economic train wreck internationally.

European consumers don’t want the technology — with or without labeling. And to

insure that the "no GE foods" virus doesn’t spread across the

Atlantic, the industry needs impartial "consumer advocates" to speak

on its behalf.

In

Foreman and the Federation, they have a winner. Foreman believes that

"agricultural biotechnology has the potential to provide enormous benefits

to society." But she realizes that American consumers are "skeptical,

even cynical, with regard to the benefits of genetically engineered foods."

When

it comes to food risks, "the population tends to be extremely risk averse

and not always rational about food."

But

she wants biotech foods on the market, and the only question is how to get it.

With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, she has organized a project with

the Federation, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Consumers Union and the

Center for Science in the Public Interest to "develop an optimum regulatory

regime" to ensure the safety of genetically engineered foods. The project

has hired a University of Texas Law Professor, Thomas O. McGarity, to draft

legislation.

Foreman

is skittish on the question of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered

products. She has refused to support legislation currently pending in Congress

that would require mandatory labeling. Other major consumer groups have endorsed

the legislation.

"She

knows the bills are out there," said Richard Caplan of USPIRG. "We

think it is the correct consumer position to endorse those bills, and it is

frustrating that the Consumer Federation of America has not endorsed these

bills."

One

reason Foreman might be reluctant — mandatory labeling could dramatically

reduce the market for genetically engineered foods.

The

Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on April 30 that Japanese importers and

manufacturers of many common food products — like tofu, miso and canned corn —

are almost certain to switch to non-genetically engineered ingredients if

they’re forced to label.

"I

don’t think anybody will label containers genetically modified," James

Echle, the director of the Tokyo office of the American Soybean Association,

told the Star-Tribune. "It’s like putting a skull and crossbones on your

product."

Foreman’s

industry connections are indicative of a growing problem within the Federation:

corporate influence. Next week, for example, CFA will give its annual public

service award to Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), friend of Wall Street,

and hardly a consumer champion. And the Federation’s executive director, Stephen

Brobeck, estimates that as much as 10 percent of the group’s $3.1 million budget

comes from corporate donors.

Stauber

points out that at a recent conference on food policy sponsored by the

Federation in Washington, D.C., most of the participants came from the

agribusiness and biotech industry. Underwriters, benefactors, sponsors and

patrons included the Food Marketing Institute, Archer Daniels Midland, IBP,

Inc., Unilever, Tropicana — the heavy hitters of agribusiness.

Brobeck

says that when Foreman joined Consumer Federation of America, "she

completely severed any ties with Monsanto."

"Just

for appearances sake, we have decided that Monsanto cannot contribute in anyway

to CFA," he told us. "They can’t come to the dinner. They can’t come

to consumer assembly. There is no contact between CFA and Monsanto."

"When

she was a lobbyist, Carol did not do work on biotech for Monsanto," Brobeck

says. "She only worked on rBGH for them." (But Stauber correctly

counters out that "there has been no bigger biotech issue than genetically

engineered bovine growth hormone.")

As

for corporate funding of the Federation, Brobeck says he’s concerned about the

perception of corporate influence and as a result, CFA doesn’t take direct

contributions from corporations or industry groups.

"But

there is a gray area, and we do sell tables at events to corporations," he

says. "We will accept payment on a project for research or education as

long as we control the final product," he says.

"But

the general litmus test is this — would we be embarrassed if the facts were

printed on the front page of the Washington Post or the New York Times?"

Brobeck says.

A

test that, in a culture awash in corporate influence, allows for all kinds of

shenanigans without shame. After all, a former Monsanto lobbyist is now working

the same issues as a consumer advocate for one of the nation’s premiere consumer

groups. If that is not too embarrassing, what is?

Russell

Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for

MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press,

1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)

(c)

Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

 

 

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