- Battle Over Gene-Altered Foods Set To Escalate

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Battle Over Gene-Altered Foods Set To Escalate

      The biotechnology industry is bracing for a renewed campaign by consumer activists next year to restrict the movement toward genetically modified foods.

      Biotech leaders anticipate the pressure could begin when Congress reconvenes in January and could extend to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The issue in Congress will be whether to require labeling of bioengineered foods, while the FDA will be asked to give greater scrutiny to gene-altered food.

      ``The activists who question biotechnology in foods will try to make some inroads in the acceptability of these products and some rules will change at the FDA,'' said Michael Phillips, director of the food and agriculture section of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a national trade group.

      ``We anticipate more discussion, and people will try to make changes via legislation in labeling of genetically modified foods, but they won't be successful,'' he predicted.

      Still, the practice of bioengineering foods - inserting genes from one species into another to create a hardier crop - is getting considerable attention. The trade organization and major seed companies such as Monsanto Co. and Aventis SA plan to spend up to $50 million in television commercials and other media buys to convince consumers that biotech foods are safe.

      Earlier this month, a Reuters/Zogby poll of 1,210 adults found that a third of those surveyed felt farmers should not be allowed to plant gene-modified crops, while just under 40 percent felt farmers should be able to plant them. Nearly 20 percent of those surveyed said they were not sure.

      The FDA is expected to introduce new guidelines on genetically modified foods as early as next month. The new guidelines require producers to notify the FDA at least four months in advance of plans to put any bioengineered food on supermarket shelves. Current FDA policies, developed in 1992, only require producers to consult with the FDA when they are introducing a genetically modified product.

      Congress is also expected to debate legislation that would prohibit state and local governments from passing food safety laws, mandating the labeling of genetically modified foods, that are tougher than federal laws. The goal of such legislation is to have a single federal law rather than separate state laws.

      And the House and the Senate will once again be asked to require the inclusion of ``genetically modified'' or similar words on packaging of foods sold to the public. Supporters maintain the distinction is as important as current requirements that list ingredients and identify how much fat, sugar, protein and carbohydrates are in food products.

      But the measure is vigorously opposed by food processors and grocery industry trade groups that say such regulations are unnecessary.

      ``Mandating that `biotech' or `genetically modified' (be put) on food labels implies that there is something wrong with the food,'' said Gene Grabowski, vice president of communications at the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

      Federal regulators are reportedly considering an alternative: labeling foods that do not contain genetically modified ingredients.

      The Reuters/Zogby survey and the anticipated fresh congressional interest stem from the discovery in September that taco shells sold by Taco Bell contained a gene-modified corn called StarLink that had been approved as animal feed but not for human consumption.

      The shells contained small amounts of an engineered corn that has a bacteria-derived protein not found in other kinds of corn. And the discovery through testing was made not by the FDA but by a coalition of environmental groups that reported finding trace amounts of bacteria.

      Soon StarLink corn was found in other taco products. Last week, the FDA listed almost 300 suspect food products, mostly Mission-brand corn tortillas, taco shells, nacho chips and foods that contained suspected StarLink corn. They were removed from restaurants such as Wendy's and Applebees and U.S. grocery stores. Between one-half and 1 percent of the American corn crop is Starlink.

      These events, plus a recent six-page report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group on the potential dangers of bioengineered foods, have suggested to the biotechnology industry that the public's confidence in the safety of genetically modified foods may be eroding.

      The study, called ``Weird Science: The Brave New World of Genetic Engineering,'' cites some plant experiments gone awry, crop failures with genetically engineered cotton and genetically engineered soybeans, and the insertion of animal genes to test whether certain crops are resistant to certain diseases.

      ``Biotechnology companies have clearly demonstrated that scientists can not control where genes are inserted and can not guarantee the resulting outcomes,'' concluded the study that was co-written by US PIRG, a nonprofit environmental watchdog organization, and the Pesticide Action Network North America, which opposes genetically engineered crops and the use of hazardous pesticides.

      Absent from the study are any examples of biotech foods endangering the environment or public health. Supporters of genetically altered foods say the products are safe, noting that more than 60 percent of grocery- store food contains genetically modified materials. They range from hard cheeses with a biotech enzyme to potatoes, some fruit and the majority of cooking oils.

      And last month, the biotech industry won a key decision when U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar Kotelly upheld the FDA's voluntary ``consultation'' policy on genetically altered foods. An Iowa organization called Alliance for Bio-Integrity challenged the FDA rules because they did not specifically regulate genes in food as if they were new additives.

      The group claimed the FDA had not assessed environmental risks when it created its genetically engineered food regulations in 1992 and said more study is needed to better understand cumulative effects of undetected toxins, carcinogens and allergens that would take years to recognize.

      The FDA had maintained that genetically modified foods were safe and need not be regulated as food additives. The agency called for voluntary consultations for companies seeking to market such foods. Moreover, it said, the insertion of genes in seeds did not change food in a ``material'' way.

      After the StarLink episode, Congressional lawmakers may take a closer look at FDA regulations.

c.2000 The Boston Globe

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