May 20, 1999
Both sides in the debate over agricultural biotechnology say Americans likely and perhaps unwittingly eat more genetically engineered food daily than consumers of any other country.
Critics of genetically modified foods say that's because the public is not adequately informed. The United States, unlike other nations, doesn't require labels that identify foods that have been genetically modified.
Proponents of agricultural biotechnology say such labeling is unnecessary because U.S. consumers have faith in their system of food safety.
"The industry has successfully fought labeling of genetically engineered foods in this country," said Bill Aal, member of a consumer advocacy group called Washington Biotechnology Action Council. "That's because they know consumers wouldn't buy it."
Jeff Bergau, a spokesman for agri-chemical giant **Monsanto** Co, agreed that most people eat genetically modified food every day. Bergau said his company has opposed labeling such food because of the implicit message.
"Labeling genetically modified food could mislead consumers by implying that such foods are different or not safe," he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires labels if any alterations compromise safety or change the nutritional characteristics of the food, Bergau said. A label that simply states the food was genetically altered in some way isn't reasonable or fair and "implies something's wrong," he said.
But critics such as Aal contend that something is wrong if the industry in the United States prevails in not informing consumers about what they're eating.
Labeling was one of the main topics of discussion yesterday in the first day of a two-day conference called Biodevastation 3. It is being held at Seattle's Plymouth Congregational Church as a counterpoint to Bio '99, the annual meeting of the international Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Bergau and thousands of others who celebrate the power and progress of biotechnology have been meeting all week at the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. Bio '99 closes today as well.
The 100 or so people gathered for the Biodevastation 3 meeting were outnumbered, but most of the speakers said they believed U.S. consumers were finally awakening to an issue being debated in Europe and in industrialized countries elsewhere in the world.
"We're at a crossroads," said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Minnesota- based non-profit Campaign for Food Safety. The biotechnology industry has promised to provide consumers with better drugs, seeds and food, Cummins said, but many people are recognizing those as empty promises.
The use of bovine growth hormone, he said, was rejected by the public despite Monsanto's massive public relations and lobbying campaign. Consumers in Europe and Britain have demanded labeling and are forcing supermarkets to offer foods guaranteed free of genetically engineered products, Cummins said.
Charles Margulis, a member of Greenpeace, said the biotechnology industry assures the public that genetic engineering is no different from selective breeding. But the scientific community isn't so assured, he said.
Speaking yesterday, Margulis cited a report issued Monday by the British Medical Association - the U.K.'s equivalent of the American Medical Association - that urged caution and more study of genetically modified food:
"The British Medical Association believes that any conclusion upon the safety of introducing genetically modified materials into the U.K. is premature as there is insufficient evidence to inform the decision-making process at present," the report stated.
Margulis said that while some genetically engineered foods are allowed for distribution in the European Union, they are not allowed to be grown as crops anywhere in Europe. Many Europeans, he said, view the environmental risk from genetic engineering of crops as akin to chemical pollution.
"What we're facing now is biological pollution," Margulis said.
Bergau and Libby Mikesell, spokeswoman for Bio '99, said Britain's negative reaction to genetically engineered foods comes from broader concerns and lack of confidence in food safety following the so- called "mad cow disease" episode in which people were sickened by tainted meat.
"There's a lot of debate in Europe now about the safety of biotechnology," Mikesell said. "Americans are more trusting of their regulatory system."
Dr. Peter Welters, chief executive officer of an agricultural biotechnology company called Phytowelt, thinks the lack of debate over agricultural biotechnology in the United States is simply the result of ignorance.
"In Europe, Germany especially, we've been debating this for more than 10 years," said Welters, who is a German citizen and was one of the speakers and exhibitors at Bio '99. "People are very informed about it."
Welters said he finds the U.S. biotech industry's opposition to labeling curious and perhaps counter-productive.
"If there's nothing to fear from genetic engineering, why do they fear labeling their products?" he asked.
Welters noted that the Germans do label genetically engineered foods, and consumers don't appear too concerned.
"In Germany, I think many people are tired of hearing about the threat of biotechnology," he said.
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Last Updated on 5/25/99
By Karen Lutz