The Clinton administration today intends to release a plan that would increase federal oversight of genetically modified foods and make details of that oversight more open to the public in an effort to increase consumer confidence in the controversial foods, officials said yesterday.
Among the more significant changes to be proposed, biotech companies would have to notify the Food and Drug Administration four months before marketing a new genetically modified food, providing the agency and the public with the research results that affirm the new food's safety. Until now, that process has been voluntary.
Moreover, the FDA intends to create a regulatory mechanism by which foods for the first time could be labeled as being free of gene-altered ingredients--a label that some in the industry have opposed because it might stigmatize or imply superiority over genetically engineered foods.
In a third change, the Agriculture Department would become directly involved in validating new scientific tests that aim to detect the presence of gene-altered ingredients. Ultimately, either the USDA or another group would certify such tests, to ensure all claims that a product is free of engineered ingredients meet the same standards.
But as has become common in the increasingly polarized debate over biotech foods, critics quickly skewered the new proposals as inadequate, suggesting the administration could be out of office before the new rules are finalized.
The regulatory changes would apply to gene-altered plants, such as biotech corn that produces its own insecticide and soybeans with protective bacterial genes, and gene-altered food animals, such as salmon endowed with fast-growth genes. The new rules would involve the nation's environmental, food safety, agricultural and trade agencies, all of which already have various roles in regulating biotech foods.
Biotech crops have been sold in the United States since 1996 and already are planted on millions of acres. They account for about one-half of the nation's soybeans and cotton, one-third of all corn, and smaller proportions of canola, potatoes and squash.
Government scientists have deemed the foods safe, but lately the products have become the target of growing opposition from food safety activists and environmental groups concerned about the crops' potential to trigger health problems and ecological damage. Several major food producers, including Frito-Lay and McDonald's, have recently acquiesced to critics by announcing they would stop using some gene-altered ingredients, sending ripples of fear through the fledgling biotech food industry.
Administration officials stressed that the raft of initiatives, which will be implemented gradually through various rulemaking processes in coming months, do not imply that regulation of genetically modified foods has been inadequate to date, as some critics have charged. But they have clearly been less than effective in reassuring consumers, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
"FDA's scientific review continues to show that all bioengineered foods sold here in the United States today are as safe as their non-bioengineered counterparts," said one senior administration official. "We believe our proposed initiatives will provide the public with greater confidence in the safety of these foods."
Several representatives of the food-growing and marketing industries said yesterday they were generally supportive of an enhanced federal presence, which many of them had initially opposed.
"To the extent that the new rules will boost consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply, then the steps are positive," said Michael Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Phillips said he did not believe mandatory notification to FDA was necessary, given the evidence that gene-altered foods are safe. But he said companies would "abide by the rules."
Stacey Zawel, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said that group was "very pleased" with the proposals. She said the GMA has already submitted to FDA some opinions about how voluntary labels should be regulated to ensure they are "truthful and don't mislead consumers" about the relative safety of gene-altered and non-altered foods.
But critics of the technology and its regulation found many faults in the new approach.
Jane Rissler, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, criticized another aspect of the Clinton proposal: a six-month review of current environmental regulations relating to biotech crops. Already, Rissler said, the EPA is years behind its planned release of tighter safety rules for biotech plants, in part because of repeated administration studies of the topic. Another six-month study, and delay, would be unconscionable, she said.
Mardi Mellon, of the same group, warned that previous efforts to label foods as "free" of gene-altered ingredients had led the FDA to require accompanying disclaimers stating that the agency believed there was no difference in safety--a condition many expect would be codified in a new labeling rule.
"That means that the very people who are advertising that they don't have this stuff in their food are forced to advertise the supposed safety of engineered ingredients," Mellon said.
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Last Updated on 5/8/00
By Karen Lutz Benbrook