By Charles Abbott
|Updated 10:56 AM ET
August 17, 2000
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
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
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
"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
The irony was that Novartis is also one of the world's largest
producers of genetically modified seeds.