The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is the utility infielder of nanny groups. Because its name implies a wide-ranging universe of issues, the group can be counted on to inject itself into just about any debate where there’s an environmental argument to be made. Washington PR firm Fenton Communications has made use of the NRDC in a variety of public campaigns, the most famous example of which was the 1989 “Alar-on-apples” food scare.
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 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.
NRDC joined forces again with Fenton Communications in 1998 to promote a food-scare campaign called “Give Swordfish a Break!” which was operated by SeaWeb, an organization created by Fenton specifically for this campaign. Nearly all of the funding for this effort came from pass-through grants solicited by NRDC on behalf of SeaWeb. Two years later the anti-swordfish campaign folded, with both groups claiming victory. The whole promotion was based on the myth that Atlantic swordfish were being over-fished to the point of extinction. But according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, that simply wasn’t true.
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.”