Worried that U.S. consumers will pick up on Europe's aversion to genetically modified foods, companies plan a PR offensive.
A coalition of biotech companies is spending $50-million this year on a marketing campaign to keep fears over genetically altered foods from spreading to the United States from Europe.
"This is going to be a long term, three- to five-year effort to build awareness and educate the consumer," said David Clark, a leader of the new coalition and president of NatureMark, Monsanto's effort to genetically engineer a potato that doesn't bruise or soak up as much oil when fried.
For 20 years, the biotech business has been using various cross-breeding techniques to create new variations of meats, fruits and vegetables in the United States. Now, it is using DNA molecules from different plants to come up with improvements much faster.
So far, American consumers have seemed largely blase toward such gene manipulation. But the companies that profit from the new technologies are clearly worried that could change at some point. After all, European shoppers have shown great antipathy toward what activists such as Greenpeace deride as mutant "Frankenfood."
Among the new campaign's first goals is to get Americans to refer to the industry as "biotechnology" rather than using the emotionally charged label "genetically modified organism" or GMO.
Adding a sense of urgency to the campaign are signs that Americans are beginning to pick up on the debate over genetic engineering of food. Echoing the themes used in Europe by environmental activists and by protectionist-oriented farmers, American activists contend that the biotech companies are moving too quickly with unproven methods that could have dangerous effects on health and the environment.
Many supermarket foods in Europe now are labeled as "GMO Free," meaning that 99 percent of the ingredients are not genetically modified. One of the first such labels on the American market appeared at the Food Marketing Institute convention here this week on Gelentano brand frozen vegetable lasagna. More are expected to follow.
Chipmaker Frito-Lay has told farmers who grow most of the corn for Doritos and Fritos to stop using genetically altered seeds, and Whole Food Markets, a chain of natural food stores, promised to banish genetically modified ingredients from its house brands.
Manufacturers in the United States do not have to disclose on labels that foods were made with genetically altered ingredients. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration issued a new rule that requires such products be labeled, but only if the modification actually changes the food product itself or its nutritional value. The FDA also is now requiring the biotech industry to share its research data on each new food with federal regulators. Until now, the industry has been providing that information voluntarily.
Genetics have been used to create tomatoes with a longer shelf life, sweeter-tasting bell peppers, frost-resistant strawberries and a strain of rice that has more beta carotene and iron. Poultry has been bred to mature faster and have more breast meat.
This year, about 38 percent of the nation's corn crop, 57 percent of the soybean crop and 70 percent of the canola crop will be from genetically altered seed that needs less pesticide, helps prevent soil erosion and is cheaper to farmers.
Bankrolling the $50-million marketing campaign _ which includes $32-million in TV and print advertising _ are Monsanto, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Swiss-based Novartis, the British Zeneca, Germany's BASF and Aventis of France.
The ads are keyed to show that biotech foods cut the use of chemical pesticides, provide more nutritious food and can help end world hunger by lowering costs. The campaign includes slick educational materials that are being distributed to dietitians, nutritionists, cooperative extension agents and key opinion leaders.
Surveys show biotech and genetically modified foods are pretty much a non-issue with Americans except when publicity flares up over health dangers such as mad cow disease or the dispute over bovine growth hormones.
"Many Americans have yet to form a solid opinion on this complex issue," said Tom Hoban, a North Carolina State University researcher. "International developments over the next year will have a major influence on the long-term viability of biotechnology."
Hoban's surveys show that 48 percent of U.S. consumers say they are opposed to genetically engineered foods. But 38 percent say they don't know enough to have an opinion. Opposition drops in surveys when consumers are told of prospective attributes.
_ Information from Times files was used in this report.