UPDATE 1-GMO group steps up social media push for U.S. consumer acceptance

Tue Feb 11, 2014 5:49pm EST

By Carey Gillam

Feb 11 (Reuters) - A group of biotech companies battling to increase U.S. consumer acceptance of genetically modified foods is increasing paid advertising efforts as it expands a social media marketing website it started last year.

The paid ads will seek to drive traffic to the www.GMOAnswers.com website, started last year by agrichemical industry players that want to allay concerns about GMO foods, according to an executive who helps to run the site.

The Internet campaign is part of a broad strategy by the biotech industry to try to beat back growing calls for GMO food labeling and for tighter regulation of the biotech seed industry in the United States.

A consortium backed in part by Monsanto, DuPont , and Dow AgroSciences, a unit of Dow Chemical, launched the website in July. So far, the site has logged more than 650 questions from an array of interested parties, chiefly focused on the impact of GMOs on health and nutrition.

A pilot project for the new web effort was completed recently and the expansion is being rolled out now, Dow AgroSciences spokesman David Sousa said. He said the ad campaign should raise the profile of the website for individuals searching for information about GMOs on the Internet.

The group is promoting the site with Google Adwords, www.google.com/AdWords, and Outbrain. www.outbrain.com.

"There will be continuous updates to the website itself, Sousa said. "It's not about advocacy. It's about transparency."

The group is also adding to its roster of "experts," which now is largely made up of GMO-friendly academics and executives who work for the biotech seed companies. The experts answer questions posted on the website. Commentators with opposing views can weigh in and debate the issue.

Sousa said the group hopes that mothers, nutritionists, medical professionals and others will participate.

Recently discussed topics included GMO contamination of traditional and organic crops, and questions about medical studies on animals that have consumed GMO crops.

In addition to the website, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has been holding a series of "salon dinners" around the United States and making presentations to various U.S. groups about the benefits of GMOs.

A recent study on consumer food and beverage purchasing decisions that surveyed 2,642 adult Americans found that 31 percent of them were unable to accurately define the meaning of the term "GMO." The study was released last month by AlixPartners business advisory firm.

Biotech crops were introduced in the United States in 1996 and quickly became wildly popular with farmers, largely because they make crop production easier. The most popular gene-altered crops withstand dousings of weed-killing chemicals and produce their own insect-killing toxins.

Biotech corn, canola, soybeans, and other crops are used in human food and animal feed around the world and biotech companies say they are heavily regulated and thoroughly tested.

But some scientific studies have cast doubt on the safety of these biotech crops.

Grocery retailer Whole Foods Markets Inc said last year it would require suppliers to label any product made with genetically modified ingredients. Restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc also is moving to remove GMO food products from its supply chain.

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