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
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
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
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
"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
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