- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2000

Anti-biotech activists are urging their followers to take advantage of Halloween to spread fear about biotech foods. The tactic advo-

cated is so-called “viral marketing” inducing Internet users to pass on false and misleading “marketing” messages to other web sites and users, creating exponential growth in the messages’ visibility and effect.

The message in this case is fear, not facts.

Genetically Engineered Food Alert, the coalition that sponsored the recent scare about biotech corn in taco shells, is behind the Halloween campaign. GEFA members include Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Organic Consumers Association, National Environmental Trust, Public Interest Research Group, Pesticide Action Network of North America, and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

To coordinate efforts to generate media attention and public fear, GEFA has hired Fenton Communications a public relations and marketing firm responsible for numerous false “scare” campaigns, including the now-debunked Alar and silicone breast implant scares. Fenton memos boast of their success in generating income for their clients based on these fear campaigns.

In a “tip sheet” on viral marketing, GEFA instructs its followers by example: “We’ve all probably seen the e-mail that promises a $5 gift certificate from the Gap … we just pass the word along to 10 of our friends. It’s utterly false, … but they all do it anyway. Yet many advocacy groups have a difficult time even getting their membership to forward an action alert to one person.”

GEFA’s suggested Halloween Alert reads, “Trick or treat? This Halloween, some of the spookiest stuff out there won’t be found in cemeteries or ‘haunted’ houses. No, this Halloween, we should all be looking for the freaky foods on our grocery shelves… . Many parents will … not let their children eat the candy they collect while trick or treating … Yet many will unknowingly serve their children with food that could be just as dangerous.”

But GEFA will say and do anything to achieve its dubious goals.

Last fall, GEFA members placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times titled “Who plays God in the 21st century.” The ad featured a picture of mouse with what looked like a human ear attached to its back. The ad’s caption read, “This is an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse with a human ear on its back.” The ad proceeded to rail against genetic engineering.

But the picture had nothing to do with genetic engineering. A mold in the shape of a human ear was seeded with human cartilage cells and then surgically implanted on the back of the mouse. The cartilage cells grew into the shape of a human ear. It is hoped that such “tissue engineering” may reduce the risk of transplant rejection for children who either were born without ears or lost them in accidents.

GEFA’s Web site proclaims “genetic engineering can create dangerous new toxics… . In 1989, a genetically engineered dietary supplement, L-tryptophan, was released to the public. Thirty-seven Americans died, 1,500 were disabled permanently, and 5,000 became sick when the supplement produced a toxic contaminant in their bodies.”

Wrong again.

There is no evidence genetic engineering was to blame for the L-tryptophan tragedy, according to testimony from the Food and Drug Administration and Mayo Clinic. The problem is thought to have stemmed from product contamination introduced via a breakdown of the manufacturer’s purification process.

GEFA apparently wants its followers to spread false and fear-mongering messages to the public. Similar false Internet scare campaigns have involved allegations of an artificial sweetener linked with multiple sclerosis, shampoo and antiperspirants causing cancer, nonorganic cotton underwear causing Gonorrhea, and tampons containing dioxin and asbestos.

This Halloween, in addition to their Internet “viral marketing” efforts, biotech food scare campaigners plan to stage events at local supermarkets from coast to coast to frighten parents and children preparing their trick or treat festivities with false and misleading messages about “freaky foods” made from fish, chicken or insect genes.

The fact that no such foods exist in any supermarket anywhere in the world is irrelevant to these special interest activists.

It looks as though this Halloween we’ll have to watch out for scary e-mails, supermarket ambushes, as well as ghosts and goblins.

Steven Milloy is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of Junk science.com.

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