President, Strategic Communications, LLC

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition Pulls a Romney on GMOFood Policy

The debate over GMO foods got "curiouser and curiouser," to quote Alice, last week at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) Annual Meeting in Philly, as the AND leadership pulled a "Romney" on its long-held, often updated and often cited policy position supporting the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) approved for use in food by the FDA.

Drated, redrafted, peer-reviewed and finally published in JADA (American Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Vol. 108, No. 7.) in 1992 and updated in 1995 and 1998, the position of the AND is in line with FDA policy, and safety analyses conducted by the World Health Organization, National Academy of Sciences, and most recently by the American Medical Association in addition to countless other science based organizations such as an IFT expert panel. The policy remained unchanged for twenty years was on the AND website and just about every science-based organization involved with the issue pointed to it as a voice of reason. AND loved it.

Suddenly,without a word of explanation, in September the AND website was wiped clean of all references to the JADA article. According to an email from the AND media relations office, "the Agricultural and Food Biotechnology position paper expired on December 31, 2009" and removed from the website.

The curious thing is although the paper technically "expired" in 2009, it remained active on the organization's website and was a core document in the public debate about GMO labeling for almost three years. It may be more than coincidence that the date AND wiped its website coincided with the launch of the GMO labeling Initiative, Proposition 37, in California. In fairness to AND, it did post a convoluted press release which basically said the prior position "expired" and the Academy now had no position on the issue of GMO foods pending a new study due out in 2013. How convenient?

I know something about food, politics and the way large hierarchical organizations work when they get unhappy calls and emails -- pressure and bullying --  from members. I am a political realist not a conspiracy wingnut.

This is what I think really happened. In the dark of night, behind closed doors, when AND thought no one was looking, the AND leadership rolled over and played dead to robust opposition from its largest state delegation, California. Having the position paper on the website was causing the anti Prop 37 AND members heartburn and they were not happy campers, so AND pulled a "Romney" -- a position that was developed in 1992, peer-reviewed and published in JADA, and promoted for 20 years as science based suddenly was not the position of the AND. In fact, according to AND's press release AND has no position at all. What changed besides the politics, certainly not the science?

I don't want to get into political ad homonyms descriptions, but an old DC medical story makes the case. I will clean it up for general consumption. Two surgeons are killing time in the Doctor's Lounge debating what kind of patient is easiest to operate on. The first surgeon says it is an accountant because once you open the person up everything is connected by numbers. The second surgeon disagrees and says it is a politician because when you open one up you discover there is no brain, no guts, no heart, no spine, no .... well, you get the point.

What did happen was an organizations that prides itself to the public about integrity and transparency showed none of those core character values. For a national organization that represents RDs in states where 80 percent of the food that is produced contains GMO ingredients, the AND action represents a callous disregard for their views. For an organization that rakes in millions from the food industry, including many of the companies that produce wholesome, safe, nutritious products from GMO raw materials, their message was "we will take your money because we do science-based policy," but on hot issues we are going to flip and flop and leave science twisting slowly in the wind because some our more activist members are upset.

AND is a huge centrally controlled organization. It stands by its press release. It has failed to learn one of the basic rules of political issue management-- the cover up it almost always worse than the original act. If the paper "expired in 2009 it should have been pulled at that time, not left in the public domain, promoted and cited  for  three more years. Did an AND staffer just make a career limiting decision? Did he or she quote Rick Perry and said, "Oops?"

People will draw their own conclusions whether AND just was too inept to manage all  the issues of the disappearing policy paper. To me it is just too coincidental that an approved and updated 20 year old science-based paper, which may have "technically expired," yet remained on the AND's website for almost three years after its "best used date," a paper that remained part of the debate about GMO labeling suddenly was Mission Impossible disavowed because it challenged the political correctness of California politics.  For twenty years AND had a position on this most important issue. Today, AND has no position whatsoever. Go figure.

Kudos to the anti-Prop 37 Proposition AND folks for bullying the masters in Chicago into impotence.And shame on AND. Mitt would be proud. The Academy's nose just grew a bit longer and it lost a whole lot of public credibility.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Prop 37: Fasten Your Seatbelts It Is Going to Get Bumpy

About four weeks from now, voters in California will go to the polls to decide whether some foods, sold in some locations, containing some amount of  genetically modified organisms (GMO) should bear a consumer label if Proposition 37 passes. The Initiative is ahead in the polls, despite the fact that almost every major newspaper in the state has opposed it editorially. Social media activity is hot and heavy.

For those of you old enough to remember back to 1986, Prop 37 is modeled after Proposition 65, which required companies doing business in California to  label their products with a cancer or birth defect warning if they contained certain chemicals listed by the State. So, now every California gasoline pump bears a cancer warning because of the benzene in the gas and every room service menu in the state that lists wine bears a birth defect warning. 

Neither warning has slowed consumption. And, consumers are no safer than before despite huge funds spent by production agriculture and food makers. At one time, the activists wanted Vitamin A listed as causing birth defects until they discovered the amount of Vitamin A contained in every carton of milk sold in the school lunch program would trigger a birth defect warning. Vitamin A was quickly dropped from the state's list.

Prop 37 has been called many things by political junkies and pundits. Some say it is the Lawyers Full Employment Act, since there is a bounty hunter provision in it and affected industries always sue. Others call it a consumers right to know provision, but like much of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign positions we are left scratching our heads about the details.

Prop 65 was passed at a time when the federal food use chemical safety program was out of date. The passage of Prop 65 forced Congress to modernize the science and the law. As a result many chemicals used on foods were pulled from the marketplace. The feds did need a firm kick in the ass.

Prop 65, the Clean Water Act, was artfully crafted. Prop 37, not so much.

There are some parts of Prop 37 that make political sense but defy any rational scientific explanation. For example, it requires labels on soy milk (because it may contain GMOs and is "bad"?) but exempts all other milk, even milk from cows fed GMO feed. Coincidentally, dairy is a huge business in California. Foods sold in traditional supermarkets require labels but the exact same product sold in restaurants or delis are exempt (a small business exemption?).A real, where in the Hell did that provision come from, exempts imported food if it bears a "GMO free" statement. Can you imagine what China would do with a loophole so large you could steer a container vessel through it carrying contaminated product?

Taking advantage of the fact that FDA has been unable or unwilling or both to define natural for decades, Prop 37 solves the problem in a few sentences. Any food that is pasteurized, heated, dried, juiced or processed, by definition, is not natural, even though a food, such as almonds, may not contain GMOs. But, if the almonds are roasted and put in a container for sale, they are no longer "natural." Go figure.

In regard to GMOs, the FDA has had firm policy on this issue for a long time. In short, it reiterates basic law. The food sold must be safe and the labeling must be truthful and not misleading.The National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Medical Association (AMA) all believe GMO foods as safe. In the European Union, where labeling is required, politicians will tell you that the labeling decision had absolutely nothing to do with science and everything to do with green party politics. In sum, in the US, the current law is up-to-date and there is no need for a checkerboard pattern of state by state regulation.

By 2012, genetically engineered varieties will be grown on 88 percent of U.S. field corn acres, 93 percent of soybean acres, and 94 percent of cotton acres. A majority of packaged foods on typical grocery shelves include some ingredients derived from corn, soybean or cotton, so if this Proposition passes, most packaged products would be subject to its requirements.

Let's assume, for the sake of discussion, the food industry rolls over and plays dead and major companies will work to meet the obligations of the new law. There is one unsolvable problem - there is not enough GMO free corn available to meet the needs of all food manufacturers. Prices of the GMO free corn would skyrocket, good for those producers, but bad for poor consumers who would see the price of corn flakes and other foods jump sharply up just at a time when Romney and Ryan propose to slash federal funding for nutrition programs.

Or let's assume a more probable outcome, that the food industry's  prime trade associations go into court and argue Prop 37 violates federal law, namely that the food is safe, as established by FDA and the California labeling, provides false and misleading information,since it implies the product is inferior or dangerous or ought to be avoided when, in fact, the GMO free products are identical nutritionally to their GMO cousins.

What happens next?

One thing is certain, the Proposition will be challenged in court and millions will be spent. 

Next, enormous pressure will be put on FDA to step up and defend its own policy. The only problem is that FDA is in shambles. It is overworked, understaffed and have bigger issues, such as microbiological contamination, where people die, to manage better.  It never has had the backbone to challenge California's desire to set food policy and law for the entire country.

Or, if the GOP maintain control of the House, it would take the GOP leadership in the House a heartbeat to use the biggest piece of lumber they can find to take the FDA Commissioner, the USDA Secretary, the HHS Secretary to the political woodshed and smack them soundly around their heads and shoulders. The GOP caucus could decide to threaten to slash more Agency funds, haul its senior leadership to the Hill day after day, week after week, for an endless series of hearings. In effect, they could tell FDA to pick its poison - to defend its policy or face political retribution. All is fair in divorce and politics.

In sum, this Initiative hangs like a sword over the heads of major crop producers, food manufacturers and biotech seed providers. Consumers face skyrocketing price increases. The Proposition represents a massive regressive tax on the poorest of our nation and rewards the wealthiest.Sound familiar?

As the pilots of all the Fortune 100 food companies' G-4's will say, "Fasten your seat belts, it is about to get a little bumpy."

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