The Consumer Federation of America is at a crossroads. Set up in 1968 to advocate in Washington, DC 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 foods, will severely test its resolve.
Who’s in charge of this issue at the 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 US “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 US-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 them there. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, she has organized a project with the Federation, the US 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, DC, 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?