The next time a "public interest" group frightens you with claims that the food you eat, the milk you drink or the fruit you seek is unsafe, be forewarned that its warnings may not be based on the wisdom of science but on the dictates of politics and profit.
That is the lesson to be drawn from a new study, "The Fear Profiteers: Do 'Socially Responsible' Businesses Sow Health Scares to Reap Monetary Rewards?," published by The National Center For Public Policy Research and Junkscience.com.
The book examines the dubious record of Fenton Communications, a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm that is frequently hired by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to orchestrate public health scares that may have no basis in fact. "The Fear Profiteers" specifically discusses Fenton Communications' central role in the 1989 Alar scare, the anti-biotechnology campaign and other 1990s health scares.
"The Fear Profiteers" shows that these scares were either based on gross exaggerations of potential threats or distortions and that, increasingly, many health scares originate not from a selfless desire to protect public health, but rather from a desire to exploit public fear for private gain.
The Alar scare was the first such campaign organized by Fenton Communications, and it set the standard by which successive campaigns were waged. Fenton was hired by NRDC to run its 1989 effort to ban Alar, a chemical growth regulator used by apple farmers. A NRDC study alleged that Alar could cause cancer, particularly in children. However, most scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency judged Alar to be safe because humans would have to consume absurdly high levels of Alar before it could pose a potential risk.1 Nevertheless, Fenton persuaded 60 Minutes to do a story on the questionable study. Predictably, a panic ensued. In a vain attempt to counter the misinformation, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement saying, "The FDA, EPA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture believe there is not an imminent hazard posed to children in the consumption of apples at this time, despite claims to the contrary."2
But it was too late. The Alar panic ruined many apple farmers and forced Uniroyal, the manufacturer, to withdraw a safe product from the market.
David Fenton, head of Fenton Communications, said that the environmental movement learned a valuable lesson from the Alar campaign. "Usually it takes a significant natural disaster to create this much sustained news attention for an environmental problem," he observed. "We believe this experience proves there are other ways to raise public awareness for the purpose of Congress and policymakers."3 In other words, environmentalists don't need facts to advance their agenda. Fear will suffice.
The new target of the fear-monger industry is the new science of agricultural biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology is a technology in which scientists employ genetic engineering to create, improve or modify plants. Biotechnology holds enormous promise to help the developing world win its war against starvation and disease. It has been estimated that biotechnology could increase food production in the developing world by 25% while a new breed of genetically-modified rice with higher Vitamin A content could help prevent the death of 1 to 2 million children each year.4
But Fenton and his clients are hard at work maligning this technology. One of their targets is bovine somatotropin (BST), a growth hormone that is naturally produced by cows. Through biotechnology, scientists manufactured a BST that, when administered to dairy cows, increases milk production 10-25%. It has been a boon to farmers because they can get more milk production from fewer cows. It is also good for the environment because fewer dairy cows mean farmers require less land for grazing.5 But Greenpeace and other Fenton clients claim that the FDA "overlooked evidence" that BST can cause breast cancer in humans when the agency approved BST in 1993.6
But the FDA emphatically dismisses the charges against BST as baseless. Calling BST "one of the most extensively studied animal products to be reviewed by the agency," the FDA said, "the public can be confident that the milk and meat from BST-treated cows is safe to consume."7 Likewise, the American Medical Association strongly affirms the safety of BST, saying, "Agricultural biotechnology of this kind is the future of food production in the United States and should not be feared or impeded."8
It is a sad commentary about the integrity of the environmental
movement that it relies upon slick public relations ploys to frighten
the public about technologies considered safe by sound science.
So the next time you hear another health scare being peddled,
it would be wise to listen to the facts, not the fear.
1 Joseph Rosen, "Much Ado About Alar,"
Consumers' Research, February 1991.
2 Food and Drug Administration, "Alar Use On Apples," Press Release, Washington, DC, March 16, 1989.
3 "The Fear Profiteers: Do 'Socially Responsible' Businesses Sow Health Scares to Reap Monetary Rewards?" The National Center For Public Policy Research and JunkScience.Com, Washington, DC, August 2000.
4 "Benefits of Food Biotechnology for World Hunger," The Alliance for Better Foods, Washington, DC, 1999.
5 William Dughaday, "Bovine Somatotropin Supplementation of Dairy Cows: Is the Milk Safe?," Journal of the American Medical Association, August 22-29, 1990.
6 "BST Authorisation Would Be 'Criminal Recklessness,'" Agra Europe, May 18, 1990.
7 "Current and Useful Information from the Food & Drug Administration: New Animal Drug For Increasing Milk Production," FDA Backgrounder, Food and Drug Administration, Washington, DC, 1993.
8 Statement from the American Medical Association, Press Release, Washington, DC, November 5, 1993.
John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public
Policy Research's Environmental Policy Task Force. He can be reached