The stakes in the debate over labeling genetically altered foods will rise this week when Consumer Reports magazine lists the products that contain bioengineered ingredients. It comes at a time when calls are being heard in Congress to label food and let consumers make informed decisions.
When Consumer Reports' new issue hits the stands this week, the magazine will identify for its 4.7 million readers which of their favorite tortilla chips, muffin mixes and even baby foods contains genetically modified ingredients.
Naming these foods by brands will add fuel to an emerging debate in the United States over policies that allow Americans to routinely eat genetically modified food without knowing it.
The 15-country European Union, as well as Australia and New Zealand, has ordered the labeling of foods with modified DNA. The Japanese government has just published a list of 30 modified foods, including tofu, that soon must carry labels.
Government attitudes abroad contrast starkly with those in the United States. Here, people consume an array of modified whole foods and processed foods derived from 50 gene-altered crops approved by the Department of Agriculture. At least 60 percent of processed foods -- from soup to nuts -- contains gene-altered ingredients.
In the United States, roughly half of this year's soybean crop and one-third of the corn crop has been genetically modified either to kill pests or to help the plants withstand weed killers. As Consumer Reports found in its testing, grocery shelves are increasingly stocked with genetically modified products because so much soy protein and so many corn derivatives such as high-fructose sweetener are used these days in processing.
U.S. policy against labels hinges on a decree by the FDA in 1992. The FDA said that food from new plant varieties is "generally recognized as safe" and that it is no different than conventionally bred food in nutrition or in requirements for storage and handling. Therefore, no special labeling is needed.
That ruling came four years before farmers, pushed by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and others in the biotechnology trade, began sowing millions of acres with gene-altered soybeans and corn. Neither the FDA nor American food distributors anticipated the resistance abroad to genetic change. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, with a strong debate over the adequacy of American food labeling.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, disclosed last week that he is finishing legislation to allow labels on packaging that indicate whether food is free of genetically modified ingredients. That form of labeling is restricted.
"At this point, which I think is very early in the discussion of this technology, it seems the most rational and safe thing to do is to label something free of genetic modification and let consumers make up their minds if it concerns them or not," said Kucinich, a two-term House member and a former mayor of Cleveland.
The prospect of a Democrat overcoming likely opposition from the farming and food lobbies and doing so in a Republican-held Congress would seem to be slim. But Kucinich argued that those industries might not wish to "create a battle" if they see support for labeling mushrooming in the United States.
"Bioengineering is producing changes in food that are coming so fast that they've overtaken the regulatory structures," he said. "Until such time that we can make a complete and independent determination as to the safety of genetically modified food, the public has a right to know whether food has been modified or not."
Meanwhile, forces that spearheaded the successful drive in the early 1990s for a labeling law covering dietary supplements have trained their sights on genetic engineering. Craig Winters, executive director of the newly formed Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, said last week that he intends to "open the floodgates of information to Congress."
In addition, the Sierra Club declared with a flourish last week that it is joining the debate on modified food. In a letter to President Bill Clinton, the group's president, Carl Pope, said that his 550,000-member organization wants mandatory labeling of genetically altered products.
The government itself ratcheted up the debate. In a speech last month at the National Press Club, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman asked American companies to consider labeling as a means to head off the foreign tempests taking a toll on U.S. farm exports.
Since then, many companies have been looking at labeling, said the Biotechnology Industrial Organization's Mike Phillips.
"If they come to the decision that this is truly what consumers want, they will find a way to provide it," he said. "But they want to do it on a voluntary basis and let the market drive it and not let there be heavy-handed regulation."
Glickman's words did not alter Monsanto's noncommittal approach. The company defends existing FDA policies but adds that it supports discussions to give consumers what they want and need. The company is steering clear of the front lines of this debate and others, in keeping with its recent low-profile public relations strategy.
Spokeswoman Lisa Watson said that food companies that sell the branded products "will need to be at the forefront of discussions."
For the food industry, labeling may be the touchiest issue to come along in years. On one hand, consumers tell pollsters that they overwhelmingly support labeling of modified foods. On the other hand, the melding of genetic engineering and farming has occurred so swiftly and so broadly that changing course would be a challenge.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association's Gene Grabowski said he worries that labeling "would imply that there's something wrong with food, and there isn't."
He said that changing the science-based labeling system now in use could let "any special interest group agitate and create monstrous encyclopedias and attach them to products."
Participants in the labeling must wade through a thicket of questions. Should labeling be mandatory or voluntary? Should it be "positive" or "negative" -- that is, should food packaging declare that the contents contain genetically modified ingredients, or that they do not?
If you indicate that food has genetically modified ingredients, how do you say it in a way that imparts useful information, given that such a label would be in wide use? And if you tell consumers that food doesn't come from genetic engineering, as Kucinich wants, how do you avoid leaving the impression that it is safer?
With European protests fresh in their minds, biotechnology companies made a plea to the U.S. government recently: Defend American rules that keep genetically modified foods unlabeled or risk a consumer backlash at home.
"We said to them that we really needed their voice because we don't want this to spread to the United States," said Phillips of the Biotechnology Industrial Organization.
The FDA may or may not take that advice. But last week, the agency said it had none of its experts available to talk about the labeling of genetically modified food.
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Last Updated on 8/23/99
By Karen Lutz