Food and Water’s arguments may be shaky, but its public-relations acumen is rock solid, and highly effective. The organization deftly links people’s worst fears about radiation to food. For example, one classic Food and Water advertisement shows a mushroom cloud erupting from a freshly cooked hamburger. The message reads: “The Department of Energy has a solution to the problem of radioactive waste. You’re going to eat it.”
The organization knows how to pressure executives who fear any sort of public controversy. When Food and Water learned that a representative from Hormel Foods attended a 1996 symposium on the benefits of food irradiation, it demanded to know the company’s official policy on this technology.
When letters failed, Food and Water sought help from its constituents, which Colby claims total some 100,000, though a recent Wall Street Journal article places that figure considerably lower, at around 3,500. Colby asked members of Food and Water’s grassroots network to let Hormel know how they felt about irradiation, and supplied preprinted postcards and a listing of Hormel’s toll-free phone number.
The organization also ran a full-page ad showing a glowing can of irradiated Spam-one of Hormel’s most widely recognized products-in the company’s hometown newspaper on the day of its annual stockholder meeting and threatened Hormel officials that it would run the ads nationwide. Copies were sent to 18,000 food-industry executives. Two weeks later, Hormel issued a statement saying that it does not irradiate food. Food and Water suspended the campaign but threatened to resurrect it if Hormel “ever considers using food irradiation in the future.”
Colby calls this approach “corporate education” and grassroots activism. Others see it differently. “The organization is shaping the debate and food policy through public fear mongering and scare tactics,” says UC Davis’s Bruhn.