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6-Regulation: U.S. biotech food rules likely to get tighter

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TITLE:  U.S. biotech food rules likely to get tighter
SOURCE: Reuters, by Charles Abbott
DATE:   August 18, 2000

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U.S. biotech food rules likely to get tighter

WASHINGTON - 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."


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.


Two consumer group leaders, Michael Jacobson of the Centre 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.


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, Centre 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.


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