New York Times
February 9, 2000
For nearly a decade, genetically engineered food has been sold in the United States just like any other food. There are no labels telling consumers that their tortilla chips contain genetically altered corn -- about a third of the total crop -- or that almost all canola oil is made from genetically altered rapeseed.
But two weeks ago the United States signed an international trade agreement on genetically altered foods, and some environmental advocates are interpreting that as an enormous shift in position. By agreeing to specific regulations for genetically altered foods, they say, the United States has acknowledged for the first time that such foods are different. And that may be the first step toward more stringent regulations and labeling in this country.
"This treaty completely undercuts the idea that the technology and crossbreeding are so similar they should be treated the same way," said Dr. Margaret Mellon, the director of the agriculture and biotechnology program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental watchdog group in Washington. "The U.S. has now signed on to a protocol that these foods are different, which makes it much harder for them to resist strengthening the U.S. domestic regulatory framework."
David Sandalow, the assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, would not comment on Mellon's speculation. "I would not speculate on trends in domestic regulations," he said.
The treaty, with more than 130 countries, will allow any of them to bar the import of genetically altered foods even though there is no conclusive scientific evidence that they are harmful. The agreement also increases the likelihood, advocates say, that gene-altered crops meant for commercial processing will be labeled abroad.
European countries already require labeling at the retail level. The decision would also pressure American farmers to separate their gene-altered crops from the overall supply in order to sell them abroad, which could pave the way for labeling for the domestic market.
Foods created by genetic engineering -- the insertion of the DNA from one species into another -- have been controversial since 1992, the day a bacterial gene was inserted into a tomato to make it ripen more slowly. Supporters say that the process is not substantially different from crossbreeding a tangerine and a grapefruit to produce a tangelo, and that it offers enormous potential benefits like higher nutrient value and less dependence on pesticides.
Opponents of genetically altered food are troubled by the potential harm of such crops to humans and the environment. For example, some evidence suggests that corn that has been modified with a gene that acts as a natural pesticide could be poisonous to monarch butterflies.
There is an almost complete lack of human safety data. So few studies have been conducted on these new foods that little is known about their impact on human health.
In the last year there has been increased pressure in this country for more stringent regulations, like mandatory testing and labeling. And recently, some important segments of the food industry have begun rethinking their use of gene-altered food.
Last month, Frito-Lay Inc. told the farmers who grow about 95 percent of the corn used in the company's snack foods like Doritos, Tostitos and Fritos to stop using genetically engineered seed for this year's corn planting. Lynn Markley, the spokeswoman for Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo, said the company thought it was "a prudent business decision now that the FDA has renewed its interest in biotech and we are hearing from our consumers that there is confusion."
The remaining 5 percent of the corn the company buys on the open market may be genetically altered. Next year, Markley said, the company will inform the farmers who grow potatoes for the company's Lay's and Ruffles potato chips not to plant genetically altered potatoes.
Some other companies, meanwhile, are spinning off divisions that make genetically altered products.
For now, the only way consumers can be certain they are buying products free of gene-altered ingredients is to look for foods that have been certified organic. But only a few companies specifically make such claims on their labels.
Like other American companies, Frito-Lay does not sell products containing gene-altered ingredients in Europe and Japan, because they are barred there.
Many other major companies, like Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, McDonald's, Nestle USA and Quaker Oats sell gene-altered foods in the United States but not overseas.
In a pamphlet provided to its customers, Whole Foods Markets, a chain of 104 natural foods supermarkets, said it is "committing to a goal of no genetically modified ingredients in our own Whole Foods brand and 365 brand private label products."
There is often more concern about baby food than other products. Sheldon Jones, a spokesman for Gerber Products, said the company "has taken all steps possible to remove genetically enhanced ingredients from our baby food."
Deborah Foster, the director of corporate communications for the H.J. Heinz Co., said any baby foods produced after the first of this year would not contain genetically altered ingredients.
Gerber is owned by the Swiss company Novartis A.G., whose agriculture division is a leader in bioengineered foods. But Novartis, which is merging with AstraZeneca, will spin off the combined agricultural divisions, in part because of consumer backlash against genetically engineered food and a resulting decline in stock prices.
In the United States, Monsanto also seems to be retreating. As part of its proposed merger with Pharmacia & Upjohn, the company will sell off almost 20 percent of its agricultural division.
Whether these actions are part of a trend or unrelated incidents, they have prompted environmental advocates like Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the environmental group Greenpeace, to predict big changes. "Consumers here should realize they are being offered a double standard by their own government," he said. "And this is going to make that position increasingly untenable."
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Last Updated on 2/9/00
By Karen Lutz