Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

This morning I saw a release land in my inbox that made me waver on the delete key. Don’t you find yourself in that command mode every morning, with a quick two-second evaluation for each unread e-mail before typically banishing it to the delete folder or, for the lucky few, saving it for further review?

I wonder if McDonald’s chief executive officer Donald Thompson also hesitated when he saw the subject line of the e-mail that gave me pause, considering the fact the release/letter was directed at him.

Titled “Open letter to McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson to commit to never use Simplot’s genetically modified Innate Potato,” the letter was sent by Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association.

That group and other like-minded allies want an ironclad assurance from McDonald’s that the fast food chain won’t source the genetically modified Innate potato.

From the letter:

“The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and other groups recently petitioned you, as McDonalds CEO, to reject a GMO potato newly approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Less than a week after the launch of the petitions, ABC News reported ‘McDonald’s Won’t Buy Simplot’s GMO Potato.’

“Some groups declared victory. But we found your statement to be less convincing.

“Here’s what your spokesperson told the Idaho Statesman: ‘McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.’

“That statement does not go far enough. It’s true that you do not currently source GMO potatoes. But that would be true for any restaurant or other buyer, because there are no GMO potatoes available yet to purchase.

“Your statement also said that McDonald’s has no ‘current plans’ to change your sourcing practices. That statement leaves the door open for a future change of plans. Once GMO potatoes, Simplot’s or someone else’s, are widely available, McDonald’s may change its plans.

“About 15 years ago, your company responded to consumer pressure and announced McDonald’s would not buy Monsanto’s genetically engineered New Leaf potatoes, a potato variety genetically engineered (by Monsanto) to produce its own insecticide.

“We’re asking that your company make the right decision again. Please do the right thing again and reject this new and risky GMO potato, and issue a public statement promising that McDonald’s will never use genetically engineered potatoes in its restaurants.”

Trying to get a “forever” pledge from McDonald’s on genetically modified potatoes is a noble pursuit for those so inclined, but it should ultimately be doomed to failure.

While some are irritated with the word play, I have to commend the McDonald’s public relations department for its carefully crafted statement.

The fact that the Golden Arches has “no current plans” to source genetically modified potatoes goes without saying. After all, Simplot is expected to release only enough product to grow a few hundred acres of the Innate potato by next year, and that product is apparently destined for the fresh market.

Personally, I believe retailers and foodservice operators should refrain from making blanket statements about GMOs, particularly relating to promises that said company will “never” source genetically modified fruits and vegetables.

With the USDA also expected to approve the Arctic apple soon, retailers and restaurant operators will again be pressed to make sweeping statements about that biotech commodity. A piece of advice: Stick with the mantra, “We don’t sell biotech apples and we have no current plans to do so.”

It is unlikely that research on genetically modified fruits and vegetables will cease. The benefits that could accrue to growers in terms of pest and disease resistance are numerous.

What if genetically modified citrus trees are necessary to save the Florida citrus industry from citrus greening, for example?

Throw in new consumer-facing benefits such as enhanced nutrition and the elimination of off-putting browning and the case for innovation through biotech is hard to dismiss.

It is not necessary for growers, retailers or foodservice operators to become vocal biotech supporters. But the produce industry should not give ironclad statements that close the door to future marketing of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables.

Yes, McDonald’s may have no “current plans” to use genetically modified potatoes, but there could be a change of plans in the years ahead. If that seems equivocating and imprecise, then I believe the message is exactly correct. A little wiggle room can’t hurt.

tkarst@thepacker.com

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