Consumers want mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and feel "outrage" when they learn how many supermarket products already are produced through biotechnology, according to a Food and Drug Administration report.
The internal report, which was commissioned by the agency to gauge sentiment about its proposals for voluntary labeling, said that consumers are concerned about possible long-term environmental and health effects of genetically modifed foods.
"Virtually all participants said that bioengineered foods should be labeled as such so that they could tell whether a given food was a product of the new technology," said the report, which is based on focus groups conducted last year. "They thought it would allow them to make more informed decisions about whether or not to buy a product."
tell the FDA what you think about their proposed new regulations!
The FDA is allowing for an open comment period until April 3, 2001. Write to FDA Commissioner Jane Henney and tell her that the new policy is insufficient. Tell her you are disappointed that the FDA continues to ignore the safety concerns of consumers and chooses instead to help the companies developing biotech products. Demand that she change the policy on GMO food to one that protects the rights of the consumer.
For more info: Food First!
The labeling of products made through bioengineering has become a contentious issue, with activists arguing that consumers need and deserve the information. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) have introduced bills to make labeling mandatory, a step already taken by the European Union and some Asian nations. The biotechnology industry has opposed mandatory labeling in the United States, saying that it would unfairly stigmatize products already determined to be safe.
Joseph A. Levitt, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the focus group report showed that food biotechnology is a hot-button issue for many consumers, and that they want more information about it. But he said the FDA did not consider mandatory labeling to be scientifically necessary or legally possible. The agency concluded in 1992 that genetically engineered foods are substantially equivalent to conventional products.
"Companies are going to be pushed by customers to put labeling on their products," Levitt said. "Our job here is to determine what information would be educational without being misleading."
The FDA conducted its 12 focus groups in four different cities in the spring. The report, which had not been made public previously, was released by Richard Caplan of U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer watchdog group.
Caplan criticized the FDA for seeking out public opinion about food biotechnology, but being unwilling to act on the results. He said the report "severely undercuts the FDA public position on labeling of [engineered] foods.
"There is overwhelming public support in favor of mandatory labeling, and the agency knows that," he said. "Whether the concerns are environmental or health-related, ethical or religious, people want to know when biotechnology is being used in their food."
The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents many food producers, said that its research similarly showed that people will say that they want more information about biotechnology on food labels. But spokesman Gene Grabowski said that follow-up research found that customers want more information about many subjects, and had no particularly great interest in biotechnology.
"You ask people if they want to know whether a tomato has been hand-picked or machine-picked, and they'll tell you they do," he said. "We see biotech food labeling in the same way." He said that after researchers spent 60 to 90 seconds explaining to people that the FDA did not consider genetically engineered foods to be different from conventional foods, the number who wanted mandatory labeling declined substantially.
In the focus group report, consumers voiced great surprise and concern over the way that bioengineered foods have been introduced, and how widely they are now used.
"The typical reaction of participants was not one of great concern about the immediate health and safety effects of unknowingly eating bioengineered foods, but rather outrage that such a change in the food supply could happen without them knowing about it," the report said.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company