GENET archive


6-Genetech §§: More US Democrate Senators call for GE food labelling

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TITLE:  Foods altered genetically face labeling
SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal / California, Mitchel Benson
DATE:   December 21, 1999

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Foods altered genetically face labeling

SACRAMENTO -- Two Senate Democrats here don't want to wait for
the federal government to decide whether consumers should be
warned when they buy genetically modified foods. They want
California to act now. In the days following last week's U.S.
Food and Drug Administration hearing in Oakland on the question,
Sen. Tom Hayden of Los Angeles already has drafted, and Sen.
Byron Sher of Stanford says he's seriously considering,
legislation to require labeling of such foods. Sen. Hayden's
proposal, to be introduced in January, goes further, requiring
the labeling of genetically engineered seeds, in addition to
modified raw and processed foods. Sen. Sher says "that might be a
logical part of disclosure. It's possible we may take different
approaches [but] I haven't had a chance to look at his bill."

Supporters of genetic engineering say gene splicing has given
farmers a valuable tool to grow healthier and more-abundant
crops. But opponents, including some organic farmers, are
concerned the technique could create mutant pollens and food
products that could harm beneficial insects and neighboring
plants and aggravate allergies in people. Sens. Hayden and Sher
say mandatory labeling is needed as much for consumer choice and
public information as for any purported health concerns raised by
the altered food products. "I want to know what I'm putting into
my stomach," says Mr. Hayden. "My primary concern would be the
preservation of the democratic process against manipulation and

But the California Farm Bureau Federation, which staunchly
opposes mandatory labeling, says such laws would unnecessarily
frighten consumers, force a big jump in labeling and food-testing
costs that would be passed on to consumers and, ultimately, hurt
food sales. "We're not against consumer information if it tells
you something," says Cynthia Cory, director of marketing and
labor for the 85,000-member state farming organization. "But we
are against warning labels when we think they're warning you
about something that's not a threat."

Even so, Ms. Cory, a geneticist by training, admits it's the
advocates of genetically engineered foods who must shoulder the
blame for much of the consumer confusion. "It's understandable
that people are scared," she says, "because these are scary
words, because the science community and firms that have come up
with [the technology] have done a really bad job -- an abysmal
job -- of educating consumers."

Sen. Hayden says that's where his labeling proposal comes in. His
measure would define seeds or food as genetically engineered if
they have been "altered or produced through genetic modification
from a donor, vector or recipient organism" using DNA techniques.
"Public anxiety, it would seem to me," says the senator, "would
be increased by the secrecy, or has been increased by the
secrecy. Anybody that's an advocate of the marketplace should
favor consumer information and consumer choice."

These proposals come at a time when both agribusiness and the
political and regulatory worlds are abuzz over the future of
genetically modified foods, in which scientists splice a single
gene from one organism to another. Indeed, the FDA's Dec. 13
hearing in Oakland was the last of three such meetings the agency
has held nationwide to help it decide whether stricter safety and
labeling rules are needed.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio) introduced
legislation in Congress to require mandatory labeling of
genetically engineered foods.. And just last week, a group of
class-action lawyers filed a suit against Monsanto Co. in federal
district court in Washington, D.C., alleging that the St. Louis
based company didn't adequately test the safety of its
genetically modified corn and soybean plants. In addition, the
suit alleges that Monsanto's patented genes give it too much
control over how staple crops are used.

A Monsanto attorney attacks the suit's "outrageous allegations,"
and says he doesn't "have much doubt we will defeat this
lawsuit." Here in California, meantime, an all-volunteer group
opposed to genetically modified foods has begun a low-budget,
Internet-based petition drive to place a mandatory-labeling
provision on the November 2000 ballot.. "It seems to me that in a
free society we should have a right to know and to have public
disclosure," says Robert Cannard, a Sonoma Valley organic farmer
leading the effort.

Stuck somewhat in the middle is Peggy Lemaux, a research
scientist and cooperative extension specialist at the University
of California-Berkeley.. Ms. Lemaux says she's served as a
liaison between the university and the public for 10 years. She
opposes mandatory labeling "because I don't think food should go
in the direction where there would be legal battles over the
labels on a can of tomato paste."

But if lawmakers determine there must be labels, her choice is
something that says the product "may contain a genetically
modified organism." In that regard, it would serve to notify
consumers and, perhaps just as important, put the financial onus
on nonmodified producers to determine that their products are
free of genetic engineering and that they could label them as
such. "If there is a consumer desire for non-[genetically
altered] foods," she says, "an industry will arise to fill that


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