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Friday, April 23, 1999 Published at 20:00 GMT 21:00 UK

Business: The Company File

GM food bosses face roasting

Despite the healthy look UK consumers have doubts about GM food

The bosses of one of the world's leading biotechnology companies, Monsanto, are facing a rough ride from their shareholders.

Food under the microscope
The Chief executive of the US-based group, Robert Shapiro, is likely to face criticism at his company's annual general meeting for mishandling the debate over genetically modified (GM) foods in Europe.

Missouri-based Monsanto spent heavily on publicity in the UK but appears to have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers wary of genetically altered foods.

[ image: Is eating these greens a good idea]
Is eating these greens a good idea
In February Monsanto was fined £17,000 and ordered to pay £6,159 costs for failing to control an experimental field of GM crops.

This UK charge arose because it was deemed not to have taken the necessary steps to stop pollen from GM crops pollenating neighbouring fields.

A one year ban has been imposed on the commercial growing of GM food in the UK with environmental groups calling for it to be extended until more is known of its effects.

The backlash from consumers in Europe has led to a number of retailers, including supermarket chain Iceland, banning GM foods.

Monsanto however says its developments promise to help Third World farmers and provide healthier foods in general.

Mr Shapiro will also be able to tell shareholders that first quarter earnings were better than expected, although still down on the year before.

Shareholders unhappy

Its surprisingly good results were due to the launch of its arthritis drug, Celebrex, which is on track to become the most successful launch in the history of US pharmaceuticals.

Alan Gubert, US journalist: Monsanto lost share value in spite of showing profit
But Alan Gubert, an agricultural journalist from the American Mid-West, says that shareholders are most concerned about the $20 fall in the stock during the past nine months.

He said: "I think Mr Shapiro will keep his job but there are a lot of questions to be asked."

The firm, built on debt of $4.2bn after acquiring various rivals, should now show some returns, he said.

On Thursday, Monsanto announced that its first quarter profits fell 33% to $132m as it spent more on interest and other payments related to last year's acquisitions.

Monsanto makes not only GM food and genetically engineered drugs. Other products are its NutraSweet artificial sweetener, herbidices and crop biotechnology products.

The company said that sales in its agricultural unit had increased 31% to $1.4bn.

Reason to Celebrex

But the highpoint was clear with the company saying that more than 2m precriptions were written for Celebrex, even though the drug was launched only in mid-February.

"We're encouraged by early 1999 events," Robert Shapiro, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

"Most notably, early patient demand for Celebrex arthritis treatment is at an unprecedented level for any new drug."

Barry Coates, World Development Movement: Third World suspicions remain over Monsanto claims
Celebrex is on track to become the most successful new product ever launched in the history of the US pharmaceutical industry.

But Barry Coates, from the World Development Movement, described the past year as an "annus horribilis" for Monsanto, especially in the UK where the millions of pounds spent had failed to win the war for public opinion.

He was also scornful of Monsanto's claims for GM crops: "These claims saying they are feeding the world are grossly misleading and I think most developing countries are extremely wary about utilising this technology."

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