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U.S. biotech food rules likely to get tighter
Updated 10:56 AM ET August 17, 2000
By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is on track to require more information from food makers before genetically altered foods go on sale, but it looks years away -- if ever -- from mandating special labels on food packages.

Food labeling was a priority of food activists who have fanned "Frankenfood" fears in Europe, demanding more tests on safety of the food and effects of the crops on the environment. But such fears have yet to take hold in the United States.

Rather than mandatory labeling, the Food and Drug Administration, the major U.S. food regulator, plans to propose this fall that food developers must consult with it before bringing genetically modified foods to market. Consultations have been voluntary thus far and widely used.

Separately, FDA will also develop guidelines for voluntary labeling of genetically modified (GMO) foods, also expected in the fall.

Both steps were heralded on May 3 by the White House as among a package of measures "to build consumer confidence," ensure that regulations keep pace with developments and see that voluntary food labels "are truthful and not misleading."

NOTICE OF NEW FOODS

Under the White House initiative, FDA will require food companies to notify it at least 120 days before new crops or foods go on market. After reviewing data from a developer, FDA would write a letter describing its conclusion about the safety and regulatory status of the product.

While FDA would not require its approval before a product went into the food supply, an agency spokeswoman said it might exercise that discretion later.

"One of the points of notification is we get to make that imposition (pre-market approval) if it is appropriate," the spokeswoman told Reuters.

Kelly Johnston of the National Food Processors Association, an industry group, said, "everybody's on board" for mandatory consultations but added that pre-market approval would be "pretty onerous" and could sidetrack new foods ready for sale.

CONSUMER GROUPS DEMAND MORE

Two consumer group leaders, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Carol Foreman of Consumer Federation of America, said the FDA's approach was inadequate to assure consumers that novel foods were safe.

"It's too little, too late," said Jacobson, faulting the FDA for a "secretive, semi-voluntary process" to review modified foods.

In a letter to the agency, Foreman and Jacobson called for a more formal review system with public access to material submitted by developers and the FDA's reasons for approval or denial. Developers should have to file a formal application with the FDA and have to wait for its approval.

Consumer groups could form a centrist position in a bio-foods debate often split between the firms that develop GMO foods and die-hard opponents. For example, Foreman and Jacobson said the current crop of GMO foods appear safe, but they also said that federal oversight should be stronger.

MANDATORY LABELING UNLIKELY SOON

There was little expectation among activists or the food industry for anything other than voluntary labeling in the near future. Lawmakers have shown little interest in two labeling bills filed in Congress.

Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a proponent of mandatory labeling, said consumers will be short-changed by voluntary labels.

"People won't know," she said, if they are buying a GMO-free food or one that is not labeled. "It's not giving many members of the public what they ask for."

The food industry, however, believes there is little public support for labeling, which it views as a back-door attempt to scare away consumers.

Seven environmental and consumer groups launched a campaign in mid-July to force Campbell Soup Co. to stop using gene-spliced ingredients in its soups, breads, juices and other products. Campbell, the world's largest soup maker, was the first target of a coalition composed of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Center for Food Safety and four other groups.

The pressure of consumer protests in Europe got a graphic illustration on Aug. 3, when the Swiss firm Novartis AG announced it would no longer use GMO materials to manufacture its food products, like Gerber baby foods and health foods such as cereal bars.

The irony was that Novartis is also one of the world's largest producers of genetically modified seeds.