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A few months ago, I raised concerns about Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel (FAIR.org, 10/28/15) after she admitted taking money from agribusiness interest groups that she covers.
I pointed out that her columns are biased in favor of those industry groups, particularly on the topic of GMOs, even though her column is presented to readers as an unbiased effort to find middle ground in debates about our food system.
My article was met with crickets of silence from Haspel, her Post editor Joe Yonan and the band of biotech promoters who prolifically praise Haspel on Twitter. I figured that, soon enough, Haspel might write another column that would warrant raising the concerns another notch up the pole. She didn't disappoint.
In her January column (Washington Post, 1/26/16), Haspel offered an investigation ("the surprising truth") about the food movement -- without speaking to anyone in the food movement -- concluding that there isn't much of a food movement after all, and most people don't really care about labeling genetically engineered foods (GMOs).
Her sources? A two-year-old survey, another survey conducted by a food-industry front group, and consumer research by the agrichemical industry's public relations firm. Let's take a closer look.
Sourcing the food movement
On the question of public support for GMO labeling, Haspel makes the following case:
Polls routinely show that, when you ask people whether they want GMOs labeled, upwards of 90 percent say yes. Overwhelming support for labeling GMOs! But if, instead, you ask consumers what they'd like to see identified on food labels that isn't already there, a paltry 7 percent say "GMOs." Almost no support for labeling GMOs!
Haspel devotes seven paragraphs of her column to explaining and pondering the 7 percent figure, which comes from a study by Rutgers professor William Hallman. Hallman's study was based on an online survey conducted in October 2013 -- old news by any standard.
Haspel cites another survey with similar findings from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a group "supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries," according to its press releases -- though not identified as such by Haspel.
IFIC has reported on consumer acceptance of GMOs using surveys designed by Thomas Hoban, a North Carolina State University professor and leading proponent of biotechnology who later took a more critical view and worried that his own surveys didn't tell the whole story about consumer preferences.
Hoban believed that since the majority of people surveyed said they knew little or nothing about GMOs, the findings did little to illuminate anything useful about consumer interests, but instead indicated that the government needed to do a better job educating people about what's in their food. He warned the food industry not to dismiss the educated minority who were raising concerns, and said the government should require companies to disclose if their food contained GMOs.
To understand "the kind of consumer we think of as part of the food movement," Haspel turned to Ketchum, identified in her story as "a public relations firm that works extensively with the food industry."
More specifically, Ketchum is the public relations firm the agrichemical industry hired to bolster public support for GMO foods after the 2012 ballot attempt to label them in California. Ketchum runs the GMO Answers website, funded by agrichemical corporations, which was shortlisted for a Clio advertising award in 2014 for "crisis management and issue management." The firm bragged in a video about the website's success in spinning media coverage of GMOs.
Emails from the late 1990s indicate that Ketchum was also involved in an espionage effort against groups that were raising concerns about GMOs.