30 August 1999 00:00 [Source: ICB Americas]By Glenn Hess
The federal government should require labels on any domestic or imported food products that contain ingredients from genetically modified crops, a consumer group cautioned last week.
Consumers Union made its recommendation after a survey published in the September issue of its Consumer Reports magazine found that only one-third of Americans are aware that US supermarkets now carry a range of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients.
Despite the group's recommendation, the article in Consumer Reports acknowledges that "there is no evidence that genetically engineered foods on the market are not safe to eat."
The Food and Drug Administration has concluded that there is no inherent health risk in the use of biotechnology to develop new food products. Therefore, no label is required to identify foods made from genetically modified crops.
At present, FDA does not require manufacturers to obtain premarket approval for genetically engineered plants because they "do not contain substances that are significantly different from substances already in the diet."
But critics--led by environmentalists and organic farmers--contend that genetic engineering may increase natural toxics or decrease nutrients in some foods, and that additives in genetically modified foods may cause allergic reactions.
"The US requires labeling orange juice 'from concentrate' and vegetables as 'frozen,'" notes Jean Halloran, director of the Consumer Policy Institute, a division of Consumers Union. "Ignoring 'genetically engineered' threatens to undermine public trust in a labeling system millions rely on every day."
In genetic engineering, scientists add genetic material from one source--such as a plant, animal or virus--to the DNA of another living organism. Some crops, such as corn, have been genetically engineered to resist pests and diseases.
Proponents of genetically engineered crops argue that the products could create higher quality crops, cut down on the use of conventional chemical herbicides and insecticides, and increase crop yields.
According to recent industry estimates, genetically engineered crops are grown on more than one-quarter of US crop land. More than 35 percent of all corn, 55 percent of all soybeans, and almost half of all cotton are now genetically engineered.
The Consumer Reports article cites a survey by the International Food Information Council which found that only one-third of Americans are aware that genetically engineered foods are sold in supermarkets.
But the Washington, D.C.-based food, beverage and agricultural products trade group says the article left out other survey findings. According to the council, "three out of four consumers expect to derive benefits for their families from biotechnology in the next five years."
In addition, the council says its research suggests that consumers would prefer brochures and toll-free numbers rather than merely having such food labeled.
The European Union requires mandatory labeling for genetically engineered foods, and it prohibits certain types of genetically engineered corn from being imported. That restriction has caused US corn exporters to lose roughly $200 worth of business, according to the Consumer Reports article.
Earlier this month, US trade officials warned the European Union that resistance to the genetically engineered products could cause a major trade dispute.
"Until the EU can credibly separate science-based risk assessment and regulations from the political process, the outlook for resolution of this issue is bleak," says Richard Morningstar, newly appointed US ambassador to the EU.
The warning comes after EU environment ministers agreed last June to a de facto moratorium on approving new genetically modified organisms. Greenpeace and other activists are campaigning to stir up European public concern about the safety of foods derived from biotechnology.
Washington is becoming increasingly frustrated by the continuing EU block on imports of genetically modified commodities developed by US life science companies and grown by American farmers. Analysts warn that the disagreement over biotechnology could dwarf recent trade disputes over beef and bananas. "Public debate all too often is dominated by scare stories and nightmare scenarios without a scientific basis," says Mr. Morningstar.
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