Published on Monday, July 24, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Clinton Administration Appoints A Former Monsanto Corp. Lobbyist To Represent US Consumers On Genetically Engineered Food Issues
by Tom Abate
Leading consumer and environmental groups are fuming because the
Clinton administration has appointed a former Monsanto Corp. lobbyist
to represent U.S. consumers on a transatlantic committee set up to
avoid a trade war over genetically engineered foods.
U.S. farmers have planted millions of acres of corn and other crops that have been genetically engineered to resist pests, and the growers want to export such produce freely. But in Europe, where genetically altered crops have been dubbed Frankenfoods, governments have imposed labeling rules and safety tests that have restricted U.S. imports.
Friction between the United States and Europe over the foods issue torpedoed last year's World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Seattle and now threaten to erupt into a transatlantic trade war.
In a last-ditch effort to settle their differences, U.S. and European leaders agreed in May to create a 20-person Biotechnology Consultative Forum, representing pro and con interests on both sides of the Atlantic.
In a letter appointing the U.S. members of this advisory forum, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked them to suggest a compromise on labeling, safety testing and other regulatory issues, and to present it to the next U.S.- European economic summit in December.
To build support for this compromise effort, the State Department asked environmental and consumer opponents of bioengineered foods to nominate their representatives to the biotech powwow.
But this gesture backfired when the State Department ignored the nomination of consumer representative Michael Hansen -- a scientist with Consumers Union -- and instead gave the post to Carol Tucker Foreman, a Capitol insider who recently took over food issues for the Consumer Federation of America after 18 years as a lobbyist.
What angered critics most is that during her lobbying days, Foreman helped Monsanto -- the firm most closely identified with genetically engineered foods -- win approval for bovine growth hormone, a chemical that stimulates milk production.
``We think it's a big mistake to appoint a person to represent consumers who's been so closely tied to the biotech industry,'' said Dan Seligman, the Sierra Club's representative on trade issues.
A U.S. government official, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the State Department is aware of the flap created by Foreman's appointment but believes the committee -- which includes Norman Borlaug, the father of the ``green revolution'' -- represents ``a broad range of civil society.''
Foreman, 62, was on vacation, and associates at the Consumer Federation of America said she could not be reached for comment.
But federation Executive Director Stephen Brobeck called it ``absurd'' to suggest that Foreman, who has worked on Capitol Hill for 40 years, would be beholden to Monsanto because she did some ``modest consulting'' for the company five years ago.
``I would challenge anyone to identify any statement or action since she's returned to CFA that did not serve the public interest,'' Brobeck said. ``People in this town move between the private, public and nonprofit sector all the time.''
Foreman's career exemplifies Capitol Hill's revolving door.
An Arkansas native, Foreman came to Washington in 1961 as a Senate staffer, became executive director of the Consumer Federation of America in the early 1970s and was appointed an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Carter administration.
In her government role, Foreman earned praise and criticism from consumer colleagues. Foreman helped persuade Congress to eliminate a co-payment requirement that had kept millions of people from getting food stamps. But she also relaxed poultry inspection rules that favored big chicken farmers like Arkansas' Tyson Foods.
But what really irked critics is what Foreman did after she left USDA in 1981 to form her own lobbying firm. In addition to helping Monsanto get USDA approval for bovine growth hormone, she also lobbied for Olestra, Procter & Gamble's fat substitute, and consulted with tobacco giant Philip Morris.
Critics concede that Foreman's corporate involvements never damaged her Democratic Party credentials and marvel at how her Arkansas roots
--her brother is Jim Guy Tucker, the former Arkansas governor and Whitewater figure -- enhanced her access in the Clinton administration.
``It didn't surprise me at all when the White House nominated her to this international committee,'' said John Stauber, co-founder of the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison, Wis., nonprofit that tracks lobbyists.
``She's trusted and tight with the Democratic Party, she isn't threatening to industry and she has managed to retain consumer credentials,'' Stauber said. ``Who better to try to smooth over these differences (between Europe and the United States) and make the world safe for the export of genetically engineered foods?''
A source close to the transatlantic commission said Foreman was chosen because she is a pragmatic dealmaker who is more interested in compromise than confrontation.
Some of Foreman's critics also seem to prefer that the transatlantic compromise effort fail. Lori Wallach, a trade specialist with Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said if U.S.-European differences over genetically engineered foods spark a trade war, it could topple the entire WTO framework which, in her view, favors corporate profits over worker and consumer interests.
Meanwhile, those who want the commission to achieve a compromise are running out of time. The first meeting of the transatlantic forum probably won't occur until September because many of the European members are on vacation.
``My hope for the forum is to bring the United States around to regulatory approval and labeling policies that are more consistent with the European policies,'' said Rebecca Goldburg, a scientist with Environmental Defense, a nonprofit advocacy group. Goldburg was appointed by the State Department to fill the environmental slot on the transatlantic committee.
``But we have an incredibly broad charge and a limited amount of time,'' she said.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle