Meryl Streep and Julia Child: Apples and Oranges
Variety reports that Meryl Streep will be playing Julia Child in a Nora Ephron confection. While Ms Streep is an actress of the first rank, the choice of her to play Julia Child is peculiar because they were at opposite sides of the great food divide.
Following the release of a report called "Intolerable Risk" -- which claimed that Alar was "the most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply" and blamed the chemical for "as many as 5,300" childhood cancer cases -- Fenton [Communications] and NRDC went on a five-month media blitz. The campaign kicked off with a CBS 60 Minutes feature seen by over 50 million Americans. Despite the fact that the claims were completely unfounded, hysteria set in. Apples were pulled off of grocery shelves, schools stopped serving them at lunch, and apple growers nationwide lost over $250 million.Currently, NRDC is focusing a great deal of its vast resources fighting against genetically improved foods.The Wall Street Journal printed one of David Fenton's internal memos, after the Alar-on-apples scandal was publicly debunked. Here's Fenton in his own words: "We designed [the Alar Campaign] so that revenue would flow back to the Natural Resources Defense Council from the public, and we sold this book about pesticides through a 900 number and the Donahue show. And to date there has been $700,000 in net revenue from it."
Apple sales plummeted and then dropped even further when actress Meryl Streep became a spokeswoman for the cause of banning Alar, which set off another round of scare stories, this time with a celebrity angle.The greens' victory was total. Within weeks of Streep testifying before Congress, Uniroyal, the company that manufactured Alar, began the triage to save its reputation, withdrawing the chemical from the U.S. market. In November of 1989, the EPA ordered a ban on the sale, distribution, and use. The NRDC reaped enormous publicity, and its PR firm patted itself on the back. "We submit," a Fenton exec modestly wrote, "this campaign as a model for other non-profit organizations."THE EXEC WAS RIGHT, of course. One observer called the "apples, children, cancer" formula "irresistible." The media offensive was criticized by many toxicologists who were, and remain, unconvinced that Alar posed a health threat. But careful science was quickly overridden by the hysteria over the possibility that apples could be killing children.It's a formula other green non-profits have been aping ever since: Compose a study; use Madison Avenue techniques to create a media buzz, enlist celebrity support; boil the issue down to easy-to-understand, often misleading terms that can be repeatedly endlessly (e.g., "apples, children, cancer"; "fishing nets, canned tuna, dead dolphins"; "SUVs, Mid-East oil, terrorism") and hope the issue catches fire. If they strike a nerve, and spark a panicked stampede by consumers, then their place in the history books is secured.
Given that Fenton Communications also represented a host of organic and "natural" food producers (and still does to this day), perhaps we should forgive him for continuing to gloat about the success of his ploy. "A modest investment repaid itself many-fold in tremendous media exposure and substantial, immediate revenue," Fenton wrote. "Lines started forming in health food stores. The sales of organic produce soared. All of which we were very happy about."
The Chefs Collaborative (CC) was started in 1993 to give voice to a growing contingent of "celebrity" chefs who want no less than to tell the rest of us what to eat (and when we may have it). CC was originally a project of an obscure Boston nutrition organization called Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, which came about in 1989 as the result of an unusual food fight.In 1985 Robert Mondavi and Julia Child formed the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF), and installed as board members a variety of noted chefs, food writers, and nutritionists. The organization's mission was an apolitical one: highlighting the pleasure of eating and drinking. Its first meetings, however, were anything but pleasurable. Julia Child's biography describes the legendary chef berating Alice Waters (who would later become a central figure in the Chefs Collaborative) for incessantly evangelizing about organic foods. Waters was "bringing the whole spirit of the thing down," Childs would later recall, "with this endless talk of pollutants and toxins." Childs wanted the AIWF to avoid emphasizing such talk of doom and gloom, because she believed that it would serve to reinforce "the country's ingrained fear of pleasure." She also believed that Waters' "romantic beliefs would not help feed two hundred million people." (snip)Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in March 2000, the legendary Julia Child called genetic food improvement "one of the greatest discoveries" of the twentieth century. She takes issue with the anti-biotech-food movement, saying that its adherents have "a very backwards-looking point of view." The Los Angeles Times had similarly unflattering things to say about Bitter Harvest, a frightening tome about modern food technology by CC's Ann Cooper, noting that the author doesn't "let facts get in the way of a good doomsday scenario," and calling the whole exercise a giant serving of "anxiety pie."
Related article: AT editor Thomas Lifson's obituary, Julia Child, R.I.P
Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC.