Volume 71, Number 41
October 4, 1999
Washington D.C. - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman confirmed Sept. 29 that the Clinton Administration is taking a hard look at its position on genetically modified (GM) crops.
"There is an interagency process looking at all of these issues - biotechnology, labeling, how to approach the absence of an effective food safety regulatory system in various parts of the world a s compared to what we have in the U.S.," Glickman told reporters.
These are issues that I'm sure will be discussed in greater depth internally before we decide exactly how to pursue them in the WTO (World Trade Organization) discussions." He said it was "clear the subjects are going to be raised" at the WTO ministerial meeting that begins in late November in Seattle Wash.
"This is a very rapidly evolving issue; it is one that all of the agencies are engaged in very deliberately right now," Glickman concluded during impromptu remarks after testifying at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the upcoming WTO trade talks.
Glickman's remarks came on the heels of an allegation made Sept. 24 by Charles Benbrook that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food & Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were engaged in discussion s on the labeling in the U.S. of products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Benbrook, who is a prominent agricultural policy consultant, said during the press conference that a "major meeting involving FDA, EPA and USDA" was held at the White House Sept. 20.
"Basically, FDA's long-term opposition to wanting to do anything on the labeling front was - shall we say - cast aside," said Benbrook. Benbrook who formerly was the director of the National Academy of Sciences Agriculture Board, cited a former colleague, who is now highly placed in USDA, as the source of the information about he White House meeting.
There is a rush underway right now, with an interagency working group being formed to try to get a U.S. labeling provision in place in time to discuss at the WTO meeting in November in Seattle," Benbrook said during the Sept. 24 press conference held in Washington by Environmental Media Services.
He reported that the "U.S. government is walking into a bees' nest on the GMO issue on the world trade talks. There are tens of thousands of activist who have already booked their tickets and who are going to be descending on Seattle.
"Seattle is probably going to see demonstrations and public expressions of outrage over GMOs that will be one of the biggest protests since the anti-war movement in this country," Benbrook said.
Another speaker at the press conference, Steve Supan of the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minn., said that with labeling announcements recently made by other countries around the world, "the U.S. position is isolate." Supan pointed out that Canada, New Zealand and Australia withdrew their support for the U.S. position during the Codex Alimentarius meeting last spring in Ottawa, Ont. Since then, each of those countries has announced plans to initiate GMO labeling - either on a mandatory or voluntary basis. Argentina, a country that has adopted the U.S. regulatory regime on GMOs, is the only country likely to side with the U.S. during the Seattle trade talks, he said.
In its September edition, Consumer Reports published research showing that many popular food products in U.S. grocery stores - ranging from soy infant formulas to corn tortilla chips - contain GM ingredients. Processed food from grocery store shelves was purchased and tested using DNA tests.
Consumers Union was quick to point out in its publication that none of the products with GM ingredients were labeled.
Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), a Washington-based trade association, has been conducting its own focus groups and surveys about consumer attitudes to GM food.
Gene Grabouski, vice president of communications, said GMA has been continuously testing consumer attitudes since June.
U.S. consumers have an increasing awareness of GM food and want more information about it, he said. Their testing shows that "health and safety are not a question…and people are not overly concerned. American consumers have proven to be steadfast in their calm," said Grabouski.
In other action, Glickman announced the final arrangements for a formal review of USDA's regulatory process for biotechnology-derived plants. USDA has completed arrangements with the National Academy of Sciences for an independent, ongoing and scientific review. A committee of some 15 members will examine environmental impacts and provide guidance on assessing and mitigating risks, according to a USDA statement. The committee will also "rapidly address emerging scientific issues."
Glickman called for the review during a major speech July 13 at the National Press Club in Washington.
Three federal agencies are involved in U.S. approvals of GM plants. USDA evaluates products for risks to other plants and animals. FDA deals with food safety issues, and EPA examines any products that can be classified as pesticides.
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Last Updated on 10/12/99
By Karen Lutz