Sometimes it's good to finish last. That might be the case for the beef industry in its goal to create biotech (BT) beef products.
No doubt, there will be obstacles when it comes time to market beef from cloned calves or from cows genetically modified to reduce toughness. But current trends seem to point to a much smoother launch for BT beef products in the future than if beef had been at the forefront.
That's the opinion of groups like Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a trade organization, and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to spreading scientific information about food to journalists and media.
"The premise that it will be difficult to market BT products at retail is not really true," says Libby Mikesell, BIO director of communications. "In the early days of biotechnology, there was a lot of debate and a lot of media attention, but in the U.S. market we seemed to have gotten over all that."
That's a positive development for beef, a product that brings the most income in the meat case yet struggles with market share. Convenience beef products now being introduced are helping. But if these future BT beef products don't gain consumer and retailer acceptance, beef could head south again, experts say.
There are some differences in consumer attitudes of BT plant products vs. BT animal products. But, research indicates that retail acceptance of genetically modified beef products won't be a problem because of information being provided to thought leaders and consumers by BT industry organizations.
BST Created The BT Rollout Model In 1993, FDA approved Posilac Bovine Somatotropin (BST), a naturally occurring protein in bovines that improves milk production by up to 10-15% (also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone or rBGH). By then, Monsanto, its manufacturer, already had spent five years preparing for its rollout.
In retail, Monsanto began informing trade associations about the advent of the product as early as 1987. It highlighted BST at the 1989 Food Marketing Institute (FMI) annual meeting. In 1990, it conducted food retailer education forums, distributed resource kits and videos to retailers, and presented information to the National American Wholesalers Grocers Association.
In 1991, Monsanto established a 24-hour, toll-free hotline and a newsletter that focused on BT and food. In 1992, it brought FMI's Consumer Affairs and Executive Committee to the Monsanto Life Science Center.
At the same time, Monsanto was providing detailed information on BT and food to national food media and science writers and broadcasters. On the human health side, it provided scientific facts to food and health professional organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the American School Food Service Association.
It wasn't long before Monsanto's BST products were receiving third-party endorsements like these:
"The American Medical Association supports the FDA's approval of [BST] to safely enhance the milk production of dairy cattle. [The milk is] completely safe and nutritionally comparable to cow's milk currently on grocery store shelves."
- American Medical Ass'n
"The approval of BST by the Food and Drug Administration is good government policy based on sound science."
- National Food Processors Ass'n
"Monsanto prepared the market place," Mikesell says. "They shared scientific information within the sphere of influencers that built confidence."
Consumers Want More BT Info Approximately 40 BT products are now on the market in the U.S. ranging from tomatoes to peanuts. In the next six years, another 30 products will reach consumers including genetically modified strawberries and sugar beets.
Each of these products will make consumers more comfortable with BT foods.
Groups like BIO and IFIC help ease the move into the marketplace by supplying constant information to thought leaders throughout the nation.
A recent consumer study by IFIC shows that consumers are:
* More positive on BT, including animal BT, than expected.
* Consumers stated that the benefits of each product had to be communicated.
These findings help assure BT manufacturers that consumers will accept the product if they understand why there is a need for it.
A Feb. 23, 1999, editorial in The Wall Street Journal on BT compared genetic modification to ranching. It said selective breeding has been a form of genetic modification used for thousands of years. It claimed that in the future, we'll know more about BT foods than about "natural" foods that make up the human diet.
That statement is directly out of IFIC's list of basic tenets that says: "BT must be placed in context with the evolution of agricultural practices."
Such comparisons make consumers more comfortable with the technology and able to compare it to practices that have long been familiar to them. It seems to have worked. Consumer acceptance of BT products has remained at a relatively even level for the last half of the 1990s.
For instance, when the Wirthlin Group asked 1,000 U.S. consumers in 1997 if BT will provide benefits to consumers within the next five years, 78% said yes. Asked the same question again in 1998, 75% said yes, showing little change in overall opinion despite introduction of several new products.
In a separate study, IFIC found that a key to retail acceptance may lie in what the products are called. Consumers said "no" to genetically engineered animals, transgenic animals or genetically modified animals. They approved of terminology that included animal biotechnology and genetically enhanced animal products.
What's In A Name As the beef industry goes to retailers to seek acceptance of BT products, the proper terminology will help ease their entry into the meat case.
Despite the groundwork being laid by other BT products, there's no doubt that BT beef will not see unanimous support.
Even though polls show the majority of U.S. consumers will accept BT products, some Europeans fiercely oppose the products. This resistance could lead to pockets of dissent in the U.S., supported with letters to editors and retailers opposing BT beef products.
It could be a campaign not unlike what has happened with Europe's ban of U.S. beef implanted with growth promotants. Despite scientific proof to the contrary, it generated letters to the editor and protests to the retailers.
Another market obstacle could be posed by companies seeking a market niche that would differentiate themselves from BT products. For example, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream packaging states that the company opposes use of rBGH. "The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH," the company states.
Ben & Jerry's Web page urges consumers to aid in the effort by requesting rBGH-free products from the supermarket dairy manager dairy product manufacturer. It also recommends consumers write to FDA, Monsanto and their local school boards.
But the record shows that despite dissent, science-based facts have provided enough ammunition to convince U.S. consumers that BT foods are beneficial. A newer and younger global population, already attuned to U.S. trends, may turn the tide in Europe and Asia as well. The key is laying this groundwork and getting it into the hands of influencers in a style that follows Monsanto's approach with BST.
The beef industry won't be the first major food industry to get BT products into retail. But, because of the track record already set by other BT products, once beef is ready it'll get there quickly.
For more information on the benefits of food biotechnology visit www.betterfoods.org.