WASHINGTON -- Opposition to food biotechnology grewsteadily during the 1980s, from 6 percent to 29 percent, by onemeasure, Karen Rogers, president of KKR & Co. of Northbrook,Ill., told the U.S. Department of Agriculture BiotechnologyResearch Advisory Committee (ABRAC) on Thursday.

Rogers was attending ABRAC's biannual meeting here tocontribute ideas on educating the public. Polls indicate thatpeople are more likely to accept familiar technologies that are"socio-economically fair" and that have known risks to whichindividuals can control their exposure, Rogers said.

Biotechnology must avoid the mistakes made by the nuclearpower industry, particularly painting an unrealistically glowingpicture of its benefits and refusing to address the public'sconcerns, Rogers warned.

Surveys on labeling have shown that people rate biotechnologyas less important than other factors; opposition is higher amongwomen.

The media, said Rogers, are part of the problem. Headlinesfollowed Chicago's enactment of a labeling ordinance, but thecity's repeal of the ordinance went virtually unreported. AndNewsweek recently bashed bovine somatotropin (BST). "Theday is almost upon us," Rogers warned, when food products ...will be labeled biotechnology-free."

The answer to biotechnology's bad rap might be touting itssolutions to some of the world's big problems: sustainability inagriculture, feeding exploding populations, and health care andnutrition, said Rogers. Companies such as Ben & Jerry's haveturned public-spiritedness into profit, she said; why shouldn'tbiotechnology do likewise?

University scientists should communicate biotechnology'sbenefits to the public, said Rogers, because polls indicate thattheir credibility is twice that of either corporations or themedia.

The committee's reaction to Rogers' plan was mixed. Al Young,committee chair and head of USDA's biotechnology office, saidthat the Dutch government had recently concluded that themain thing 95 percent of people wanted to know was whetherthe food was safe.

Chefs voiced similar concerns at a workshop during JeremyRifkin's attempts to enlist opposition to biotechnology, onecommittee member said.

One member of the audience suggested that the industry hadhurt itself by coming out first with "an animal product that isgiven to infants, an emotional type of food, and a threat tofamily farms." She suggested that if the Flavr Savr tastes good,that might allay a lot of people's fears.

"We have been frustrated in the department as to how to goout in this arena, Young told BioWorld. "It turns out it'sprobably for the safety issue, to reassure the public withoversight."

But Young thought there was little need for the department tomount a major educational program. Rogers had done a laundrylist of current programs, and "I came away thinking that therewas a lot more going on than I had known about."

Besides Young, committee members included A. David Kline,College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, State University of NewYork, New Paltz; Robert Fraley of Monsanto; James Lauderdaleof The Upjohn Company, Susan Harlander, director of researchand development at Land O'Lakes Inc.; Stanley Pierce of Rivkin,Radler, Bayh, Hart, & Kremer of Uniondale, N.Y.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.