Consumer groups wary about agribusiness coalition

January 09, 1991|By Daniel P. Puzo | Daniel P. Puzo,Los Angeles Times

An agricultural business coalition has launched a costly promotional campaign to restore confidence in America's food supply. The Washington-based Agriculture Council of America is coordinating the effort -- FoodWatch -- collecting $750,000 in donations last year from various commodity groups, chemical manufacturers and individuals.

The program is the latest in a series of steps being taken by agriculture interests to counter criticism over pesticide usage and other food safety issues.

Recently, for instance, Washington State apple growers filed a $150 million lawsuit against CBS and the Natural Resources Defense Council because of losses stemming from the 1989 Alar controversy. Another recent indicator of the farm sector's public relations offensive was its well-financed campaign to defeat California Ballot Proposition 128 or "Big Green."

"Absolutely, there is a new aggressiveness," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy in Washington. "There have been signs over the last six months that the food and agribusiness industries are going to invest heavily in this kind of advertising."

Ms. Haas says that FoodWatch's goal is to distort food safety issues.

FoodWatch's current centerpiece is a TV commercial portraying Pennsylvania Dutch townfolk gathering for a meal in a churchyard next to a cornfield. The background music is a rendition of "Amazing Grace." The only words spoken during the spot are at its conclusion when a narrator says, "America's bounty: Brought to you by the 20 million men and women who put food on your table."

The commercial's debut was on Thanksgiving Day in as many as 120 TV markets. All the air time was bought by supportive corporations or donated by local stations as public service announcements, a device that yielded significant savings for the FoodWatch campaign.

Future components of the program include media relations, newspaper-magazine advertisements, public opinion polling and distribution of educational materials.

"FoodWatch is designed to build public confidence in the food and agriculture industries and in the institutions that guide them, both public and private," said Judy O'Hara, executive director of the Agriculture Council of America.

Ms. O'Hara said that major contributions and support from more than two dozen chemical companies and affiliated trade groups have not hurt FoodWatch's credibility.

"The [chemical interests'] participation represents the fact that some segments of the industry feel this problem is more important than the others do," she said.

Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington, remains skeptical. "I wish the industry would instead spend all this money to clean up the problems with contaminated foods, promote safety in poultry processing and reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture," he said.

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