NORTHFIELD, Ill. -- Anti-biotech activists have declared war on Kraft Foods here, and supermarkets are their field of battle.
The Genetically Engineered Food Alert, Washington, claimed to have held demonstrations in 170 cities on Feb. 6 to launch a campaign to get Kraft to remove genetically modified organisms from its products. Most of the protests were to be held at supermarkets, although at least one was at a Kraft facility in Tarrytown, N.Y.
SN could not confirm the extent of the actual protest activity, but estimates of the number of protesters at some sites ranged between 10 and 15, with little or no disruption of store operations.
Karen Ramos, spokeswoman for Jewel-Osco, Ill., said there were protests at two of their stores; five people showed up at one, and two people protested at another later in the day. The first lasted about a half-hour and the second was less than that.
"It had no effect at all on our business," Ramos said.
About a dozen protesters gathered outside a Safeway store at 1701 Corcoran St. in Washington, an event monitored by the Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers of America, said Gene Grabowski, vice president, communications. Few shoppers were around for the midday event that lasted less than half an hour, he said. No television crews or mainstream media reporters were in attendance.
Protesters carried posters, handed out leaflets and chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, biotech foods have got to go." The store manager told GMA representatives that there was no impact on business and no one asked questions about the biotech content of the store's products, a report echoed by personnel at other targeted stores.
At other protest sites documented by SN, there were about a dozen people at a Publix in the Paradise Plaza Shopping Center in Sarasota, Fla., 10 to 15 people at a Safeway at 2798 Arapahoe in Boulder, Colo., and 10 people at the Kraft Technical Center in Tarrytown. Corporate officials for major retailers were contacted but either declined comment or did not return calls.
"These groups have not had big protests for some time," said Grabowski. They hold them during the day when there are few customers, hoping to attract the TV cameras, he said. "Nobody shows up for these things any more," he said.
"We respect the right of people to make their views known about biotech -- for or against it -- but the kind of demonstrations we saw yesterday just didn't seem to work. It just doesn't seem to be resonating, and I think it is because people are concerned about other things in their lives," Grabowski said.
"We would put the demonstrations into the category of publicity stunts," said Karen Brown, senior vice president, Food Marketing Institute, Washington. Supermarkets do not make the products, and "all we are doing is offering a variety of safe and wholesome products to our customers. There is nothing wrong with these products. We think this kind of third-party protest is unfair as far as supermarkets are concerned," she added.
The Genetically Engineered Food Alert is an umbrella group for seven organizations: the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, National Environmental Trust, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America and the State Public Interest Research Groups.
In July 2000, the coalition protested GMOs in products of Campbell Soup and Kellogg, and played a central role in the StarLink corn recall by Kraft in September 2000.
"We are having educational events at supermarkets to raise awareness that Kraft is using genetically engineered ingredients in many of their products, and to let customers know that those products are not labeled as such," said Kate Madigan, Los Angeles-based safe foods advocate for the State Public Interest Research Groups. She served as spokeswoman for the Feb. 6 protests.
"At the launch of the campaign, we want to educate consumers at the supermarkets while they are shopping," Madigan said, adding that the campaign will be of indefinite duration. "We plan to continue to call on Kraft to remove genetically engineered ingredients from their products until they commit to do so," she said.
Kraft was targeted because of its size and because of its claim that Kraft products can be found in 99% of American households, she said. "They are putting genetically engineered products on the tables of virtually all Americans," she said. Madigan also pointed out that Kraft bowed to public pressure in Europe and eliminated GMOs from the products it markets there. "There is enough consumer concern here in the United States, and American consumers deserve the same."
As part of the campaign launch, the groups revealed a study confirming the presence of GMOs in such popular Kraft products as Taco Bell taco shells, Snackwell crackers, Lunchables, Tombstone Pizzas, Post Blueberry Morning Cereal, Stove Top Stuffing and Boca Burgers, which are targeted at health-conscious consumers. Kraft did not dispute the results of the study.
Madigan acknowledged that the GMO levels do not exceed the standards set by government organizations, but said the regulations of the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency are not stringent enough. "There is no testing required of these so there is no way of knowing how this will affect human health or the environment," Madigan said.
Michael Mudd, a spokesman for Kraft Foods, said the Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Association and World Health Organization have looked closely at the issue of biotech crops and reached the conclusion that they are safe. "We have strong confidence in the process by which that conclusion was reached. If there were any real risk to these ingredients, you can be sure they wouldn't be in our products," he said.
But public opinion about biotech differs throughout the world, with Europeans being far less accepting of it than Americans. "Survey after survey has shown that a significant majority of the American public does not express concern about biotech. The same significant majority of the country has a high confidence level in the government's ability to assess the safety of this and other scientific advances," Mudd said.
Some have said that Kraft will eventually yield to the unrelenting public relations campaign the activists seem intent on conducting. "At this point, the public does not share the concern of the activists, and the agricultural community has an obvious desire to use the technology. Until the needle is moved on those two factors, the status quo is going to prevail," Mudd said.
Equity analyst Gary Giblen, director of research and senior vice president, C L King Associates, New York, would not dismiss the activists' staying power and no-ted that they are skilled in the use of public relations. "It is a pretty noisy group. It's kind of politically correct, although maybe a little overzealous, but it's a really major cause," he said. "It's sort of a mainstream fringe movement."
Whether Kraft or any other consumer packaged goods manufacturer gives in to the activists comes down to a cost-benefit analysis, Giblen said. "Is the cost of complying with the request more or less than the bad PR and appearing contra-PC?" he asked.