PUBLIC interest groups eager to promote ``corporate responsibility'' are now taking an innovative approach here: They are seeking to limit or curtail certain production processes. Last month, the Quaker Oats Company announced at its annual meeting that it would no longer irradiate food products or buy irradiated food. That decision followed a campaign by public interest activists who had - among other steps - filed a shareholder's resolution with the Chicago-based food company seeking clarification of Quaker Oat's food preparation policies. Stockholders learned that the company's Golden Grain subsidiary, which makes pasta products, had once used irradiated mushrooms in its food preparation process.
Irradiation is a federally approved production process for vegetables, fruits, nuts, certain meats, flour and grains, that lengthens their shelf life. Some activists dislike the process because it requires that food be exposed to ionizing radiation from cobalt 60 and cesium 137, both radioactive sources.
``When the food is subjected to irradiation, molecules are hit so hard that they break apart; but when they come back together, new chemicals are formed. It is our contention that it is just impossible to determine the safety of these new chemicals at this time,'' says Christina Roessler, executive director for Food & Water Inc. The non-profit public interest group, based in Denville, N.J., is determined to curb the practice.
To say that Food & Water Inc. has been successful so far may be somewhat of an understatement, according to food analysts. Prior to the decision by Quaker Oats to adopt an anti-irradiation policy, H.J. Heinz & Company announced in September that it would adopt an anti-irradiation policy. Another food producer, Ralston-Purina, has agreed that it will announce such a policy at its annual meeting this January, according to Ms. Roessler.
New Jersey's legislature passed a bill earlier this month, just signed into law by Governor Thomas Kean, banning irradiated foods for two years. Several other states, including New York and Maine, have either imposed or are considering curbs on the sale of irradiated food.
Currently, Food & Water Inc. is seeking to block the construction of a poultry plant in central Florida that would use irradiation. On the national level, the organization works with such groups as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which is made up of a number of Roman Catholic and Protestant congregations who seek to influence corporations through the corporate shareholder process.
Corporate experts note that while seeking to persuade companies to adopt specific public policy issues is not new - such as asking companies to divest holdings in South Africa, for example - attempting to persuade firms to alter or abolish actual production processes is somewhat unique.
Corporations come under the scrutiny of public interest groups over other issues. On Jan. 9, for example, the Council On Economic Priorities, in cooperation with Ballantine Books, will issue its latest edition of ``Shopping For A Better World,'' a handbook that rates companies on a number of public policy issues. ``Some 168 companies will be looked at, including over 1800 brands,'' according to Alice Tepper Marlin, executive director of the Council.