Published on Wednesday, May 3, 2000 at 3:02 PM by the Associated Press
Activists Slam, Corporations Cheer Clinton's Biotech Food Regulations
by Philip Brasher
 
The Clinton administration declined to require that food labels disclose ingredients that are genetically engineered and instead announced Wednesday a series of industry-backed steps intended to assure the public that the products are safe.

"The scientific evidence does not show that these products are any different from a health and safety standpoint," said Joe Levitt, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Critics of the industry say there isn't enough known about possible allergic reactions to the food or the potential harm to the environment and have been demanding both mandatory labeling of the products and tougher testing standards for biotech plants and animals.

The administration's plan would formalize the FDA's review process for new biotech crops, set labeling standards that would restrict the claims of biotech-free foods, and also conduct a six-month review of environmental regulations that cover gene-altered plants and animals.

Biotech companies will be required to notify the FDA at least four months in advance of releasing new genetically engineered ingredients for food and animal feed and to give the agency their research data.

Companies now consult voluntarily with the FDA before going to market. The new plan would codify the practice and make it harder for a company to challenge the agency in court if it objected to a new crop. The agency would post its conclusions and product safety data on its Web site for consumers to read.

Having a voluntary review process "did not provide the level of public confidence that the FDA is really out there looking out for the consumer," although agency officials "absolutely stand behind the safety" of food now on the market, Levitt said.

Later this year, FDA also will propose guidelines for food makers who want to label products made with or without the use of bioengineered ingredients. The guidelines will ensure that labels, such as those claiming foods are biotech-free, are "truthful and informative," the agency said.

Similar guidelines have limited the marketing of organic dairy products that claim to be free of growth hormones. The labels must acknowledge that tests cannot distinguish between treated and untreated milk.

The government has approved some 50 varieties of genetically engineered crops. Gene-altered soybeans and corn can be found in foods throughout the supermarket. Biotech animals, including leaner hogs and fast-growing salmon, are in development.

Critics said the government's proposal falls short of what's needed.

"This plan is like some fat-free foods – it's not very good and there isn't much substance," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist for Environmental Defense. She did, however, praise the administration's decision to review its environmental regulations to see if they are adequate.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is sponsoring a mandatory labeling bill, called the administration's plan "a hollow step."

Biotech companies and food manufacturers applauded the proposal.

"If the steps announced today serve to further strengthen public confidence in the United States' already strict regulatory system and the safety of our food supply, then they must be considered appropriate and positive," said Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department will begin certifying new tests designed to detect the presence of biotech ingredients in food. Such tests, ensuring that food labeled biotech-free meets uniform standards, would make it easier for some farmers to sell to U.S. and foreign consumers who refuse to buy gene-altered products.

The plan stemmed from public hearings last year amid a public outcry, primarily overseas, about genetically engineered crops.

FDA won't propose new rules for the mandatory review process and voluntary labeling program until this fall, officials said, meaning they probably won't take effect until next year, after a new administration takes office.

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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