Keeping your mouth shut. is the best way to get on-side
with the public, says confidential advice to Europe's biotechnology
DANNY PENMAN reports.
LONDON Biotechnology companies are being advised to avoid public discussion of the safety of genetically altered food. It comes from a damage-limitation consultant, Burson-Marsteller, in a document which has been leaked to the Observer newspaper. Burson-Marsteller was the firm which represented the companies involved in the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis in 1979 and the Bhopal chen-dcal disaster which killed up to 15,000 in India in 1984. The saine firm stepped in after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground off Alaska in 1989, and helped to manage public relations for the British authorities during the BSE crisis. The company has been hired to improve the image of the European biotechnology industry and to challenge the green lobby over genetically engineered food. Its advice to the biotechnology industry is to focus on consumer benefits and steer clear of safety questions. "Pubhc issues of environmental and human health risk are communications killing fields for bio-industries in Europe," the leaked document warns. "EuropaBio's communications strategy must be to st se killing fields no matter how provocative the invitation." The document advises the industry to abandon the use of logical arguments and to adopt symbols in its battle to win greater acceptance for genetically altered products. Peter Linton, a spokesman for Burson-MarsteRer, said the industry has behaved "like an axe murderer with something to hide. "I think the i,ndustry thought it had good news, that it had less noxious and polluting ways,of controlling bugs and weeds. Then it discovered to its horror that its products were viewed as contaminated. "Now the industry has learned that if a product benefits the consumer that fact has to be conimunicated to the consumer." Environmental groups have dismissed the strategy as cynical. Greenpeace spokesman Doug Parr said: "We do not understand why they don't accept public opinion rather than trying to change it." Burson-Marsteller was hired after a Greenpeace carnpaign against genetically modified food. Last April, campaigners in 27 countries took direct action against biotechnology companies and suppliers of genetically engineered food. The European Commission has decided to oblige companies to label such products. OBSERVER