Corporate America responds to biotech

Published July 1, 2000

McDonald’s Corporation recently notified its largest potato processor, Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Co., that the fast-food company would no longer accept genetically modified potatoes for its french fries.

The Wall Street Journal reported on April 28 that McDonald’s, Frito-Lay, and other fast-food and snack-food companies are telling their suppliers to stick to non-GM varieties.

“You’re talking about a highly visible retail product in french fries, and therefore pressure from extreme environmental groups and anti-technology groups managed to raise this to a level where there appeared to be consumer reluctance,” said Fred Zerza, spokesman for Idaho’s J.R. Simplot Co., one of McDonald’s largest suppliers of potatoes.

Idaho farmers are perplexed. “We constantly hear from EPA and the environmental community that we use too much pesticide,” said Potato Growers of Idaho spokesman John Thompson. “Here’s a tool comes along that reduces that, and they don’t like that either.”

According to the Associated Press, roughly 4 percent of the 1999 U.S. potato crop was grown using genetic modification techniques.

Frito Lay, a division of Pepsico, last fall told the farmers who supply grain for its snack foods not to plant genetically modified corn or potatoes, a company spokesperson told Environment & Climate News. Other commodity items, such as the oils used to make Frito Lay snack foods, may contain GM grains. The company also said the high-fructose corn sweetener used in its soft drinks is not at issue, since Pepsico has tested the sweetener and determined no GM proteins remain in the product after processing.

At the May 3 shareholders’ meeting of Pepsico Inc. (parent company of Frito Lay, Pepsi, and Tropicana brands), a proxy statement asking Pepsico to remove genetically engineered crops “from all products sold or manufactured by the company” was defeated. The preliminary vote announced by Pepsico at the meeting was: 4.2 percent in favor of banning GM products; 91 percent against the ban; and 5 percent abstaining. The board of directors had urged shareholders to reject the proposal saying, “the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have determined that currently approved foods derived from modern biotechnology are as safe as conventional foods.”

Biotechnology was a hot topic among producers and suppliers attending a recent Food Marketing Institute (FMI) convention, held May 7-9 in Chicago. But according to FMI President Tim Hammonds, biotech issues “have yet to gain traction with our customers. They are much more concerned with nutrition and use of pesticides.”

A survey of 2,000 consumers conducted earlier this year by FMI reported that 37 percent of grocery shoppers knew nothing about biotechnology. Only 9 percent said they had heard much about it. According to FMI, “More than half [63 percent] of consumers say they would be likely to purchase a product that had been modified by biotechnology.” Sixty-three percent of respondents to this year’s survey That figure had, FMI acknowledged, fallen since its 1996 survey, when 77 percent reported they would be likely to purchase a biotech product.