and Robert Weissman
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?
the hottest consumer issue of the next few years, genetically engineered (GE)
foods, will severely test its resolve.
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.
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."
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
Forum, dominated by experts partial to the industry, will prepare a report for
the December 2000 U.S.-European Union summit.
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.
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."
it comes to food risks, "the population tends to be extremely risk averse
and not always rational about food."
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
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
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
reason Foreman might be reluctant — mandatory labeling could dramatically
reduce the market for genetically engineered foods.
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.
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
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.
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.
says that when Foreman joined Consumer Federation of America, "she
completely severed any ties with Monsanto."
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."
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.")
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.
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.
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?"
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?
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,
Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman