20 March 1998
The UK supermarket chain Iceland has come out against genetically modified
foods. Tony Gilland objects to its irresponsible campaign
On Wednesday 18 March Malcolm Walker, chairman and chief executive of the
Iceland frozen food chain launched a campaign against genetically modified
(GM) foods. He claimed that consumers were being conned into eating
something they knew nothing about. The impetus for the campaign comes from
the introduction of genetically modified soya beans into Britain's food
chain. Soya is used in about 60 per cent of all processed foods and soya
beans imported from the US now include a genetically modified variety mixed
up with the 'ordinary' beans.
Walker described the introduction of genetically modified foods and
ingredients as 'probably the most significant and potentially dangerous
development in food production this century'. Therefore, from May 1 this
year, Iceland is guaranteeing that its 'own label' products will be
entirely free of any genetically modified ingredients. Iceland is also
launching a campaign to persuade the American Soya Bean Association to
introduce crop segregation so that GM-free products can be provided more
easily: 'We urge other retailers, producers and farmers to join our
campaign for crop segregation and a more cautionary approach to the
introduction of this new technology.'
Iceland has promoted this campaign as an exercise in consumer choice. Its
press material states that 'Iceland Group will be the only major food
retailer in the UK offering consumers a choice as to whether they eat food
containing genetically modified ingredients or not'. The result, however,
will be to promote fears about GM foods in a one-sided and dangerous manner.
GM products are created by copying a gene from one organism and inserting
it into another, in order to give it enhanced properties. For example,
crops can be made resistant to herbicides (as with Monsanto's Roundup Ready
Soya Bean) or to produce their own insecticide - thus improving yields and
reducing the amount of chemicals used in their production.
As part of its initiative Iceland has said it will provide consumers with
leaflets in all their stores and detailed information packs will be
available from a 'Genetic Hotline'. Their leaflet 'Genetic modification of
food and how it affects you' contains a letter from Malcolm Walker to
Iceland's customers where he states that the 'health risks from genetically
modified foods are real'. 'Of course', he continues, 'this is an issue
about which you must make up your own mind'.
Far from providing information that will assist customers to make up their
own minds, Iceland's information leaflet appears to be an attempt to make
up the minds of its customers for them.
On the question of safety the leaflet states that opinion is divided but
implies that it is only those involved in the biotechnology business who
consider it to be safe, whereas 'many professional independent observers
believe genetic engineering is unpredictable, unstable and dangerous'. The
leaflet continues: 'Perhaps most worrying of all, there is no way of
recalling a genetic modification. Once released into the environment,
genetic pollution cannot be cleaned up, it will survive so long as there is
life on Earth.' Iceland has clearly decided that genetic modification is an
irreversible pollution of the planet and this is presented to customers as
an irrefutable truth in a manner more akin to an environmentalist campaign
group than a major food retailer.
However, if by the end of the leaflet Iceland's customers are still unsure
about genetic modification and would like further information, the leaflet
helpfully provides contact information for five other organisations: Food
Labelling Agenda, Friends of the Earth, Genetic Forum, Greenpeace and the
Soil Association - all organisations opposed to GM foods and who, no doubt,
will be happy to reinforce Iceland's message.
If Malcolm Walker and Iceland were really interested in improving consumer
awareness of GM foods and allowing them to make up their own minds why not
provide customers with more balanced information? For example, all GM
products on the market have been tested and approved by US, EU and UK
regulatory authorities. The government's Advisory Committee on Novel Food
Processes, largely made up of academic experts, have in fact argued that GM
crops are safer than crops produced via conventional breeding both because
we have a clearer picture of the genetic alterations underlying the changes
in the crops and because GM crops receive much greater levels of testing
than the conventional varieties.
On the point that genetic modification is risky because it has irreversible
consequences the ACNFP point out that 'in practice most crop plants,
whether they have been genetically modified or not, do not survive in the
In support of its initiative Iceland cite research commissioned from the
opinion poll organisation Gallup which 'shows a high level of ignorance or
misunderstanding of genetically modified foods and consumer resistance to
them'. Sixty three per cent of respondents who were aware of genetically
modified food had reservations, which increased to 77 per cent once a
definition was provided. The definition includes the examples of
transferring a gene from an Arctic fish to a tomato to make it frost
resistant and of transferring genes from humans to pigs to make them grow
faster and leaner.
Whilst it is valid to point out the lack of public awareness and
understanding of genetic modification, it is not surprising that consumers
register concerns about a process which they do not understand - involving
the transfer of genes from animals to plants and from humans to animals. In
a society gripped by food safety panics, and where many are sceptical about
human intervention in nature, these concerns are even less surprising.
However, the point is that consumer concerns in and of themselves are not
an argument against new innovations but an argument for addressing those
Consumer concerns about new technologies need to be addressed through
accurate explanations of the processes involved and of the competing
arguments where differences of opinion exist - in short through rational
debate. Not through the promotion of fear.
The problem with Iceland's initiative is that it is not an exercise in
consumer choice: Malcolm Walker and Iceland are campaigning against GM
foods. Whilst many companies have adopted environmentally friendly
clothing, customers do not normally expect food retailers to be playing the
role of an environmental campaign group, and therefore will not approach
Iceland's literature in that light. For a food retailer like Iceland to
promote fears about GM food in this alarmist, emotive and one-sided fashion
is grossly irresponsible.
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