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Novartis Calls for Frankenfoods Labeling



February 24, 1997

Biotech Firm to Advocate Labels on Genetically Altered Products

By BARNABY J. FEDER


  One of the world's biggest biotechnology companies is preparing to advocate
that all genetically engineered crops and food products made from them be
clearly labeled, a practice long demanded by opponents of genetic engineering
but strongly opposed by farm and industry groups. 

  The new policy by Novartis, a giant Swiss agribusiness, chemicals and drug
company formed last year by the merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz, is a
response to the much stronger push for such labeling in Europe. It also
reveals a rift within industry over whether consumers can be trusted to
ultimately ignore what biotechnology backers see as scare-mongering by its
opponents. 

  "There is no need from a scientific and safety standpoint, but if we
believe in the consumers' right to choose, the industry cannot reasonably
argue against labels facilitating this choice," Wolfgang Samo, head of
agribusiness at Novartis, said in an interview Friday. He will outline the
company's position Monday at a conference in Boston. 

  That right to choose is advocated by biotech opponents. But James
Maryanski, biotechnology coordinator at the Food and Drug Administration,
said the agency did not "require things to be on a label just because a
consumer might want to know them." 

  "We couldn't find any common characteristic conferred by genetic
engineering so we look at each product on a case by case basis," he said. 

  Genes are segments of DNA, the long double chain of molecules in every cell
that governs its form and function. Genetic engineers modify the behavior of
existing genes in a plant or animal or, in a matter of more controversy,
insert genes from that species or other species that give the transgenic
organism a new trait or enhance an existing one. 

  Genetically engineered products are now used on American farms to increase
milk production and reduce the amount of herbicides or insecticides used on
corn, soybeans, cotton and potatoes. Foreign genes have also been introduced
into tomatoes to delay ripening. None are explicitly labeled as genetically
modified. 

  Supporters of the technology say that most consumers accept it but that
across-the-board labeling of all genetically altered products might falsely
imply significant risks that could scare consumers away and slow the
technology's development. 

  Scientific advisory panels to government regulators have found no
substantial risks in such products, said Jerry Caulder, chief executive of
Mycogen Corp., a biotechnology company based in San Diego, and head of the
agricultural section of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade
group. He said labeling "would be like when they used to label blood as
black, Jewish or white, a social prejudice with no scientific basis." He also
said, "It's saying, 'I want to reduce my risk to zero at the cost of denying
advances in food production that the rest of world is going to need to feed
itself."' 

  But biotechnology opponents -- and now Novartis -- say it is wrong to
ignore many consumer surveys showing a majority of Americans would like the
choice of avoiding food produced from genetically altered crops or animals. 

  Some opposition is based on religious convictions. But critics and
supporters agree that most consumer uneasiness can be traced to assertions
that the biotechnology industry and government regulators have played down or
ignored studies pointing to problems or potential risks. 

  Critics cite studies hinting at ways biotech products might increase the
risks of some forms of cancer, limit the effectiveness of antibiotics or
unexpectedly release natural toxins in plants. They say that unknowing
consumers might suffer allergic reactions to microscopically altered forms of
products they assumed were safe. And they say that the genetically altered
crops will inevitably lead to superweeds resistant to herbicides and new
breeds of pesticide-resistant insects. Such insects would be especially
damaging to organic farms, which rely on natural bacterial forms of the same
pesticide being transferred to the plants. 

  Neither side is confident that consumers understand the issues very well. A
new consumer survey Samo intends to release on Monday showed that while more
than 90 percent of Americans want "bioengineered" products to be labeled,
more than two-thirds of those surveyed say they know little or nothing about
the technology. 

  The labeling issue is about to become even more heated and confused in
Europe. Last week, the European Union issued new regulations covering "novel"
food. They would clearly require labeling of some biotechnology-based
products, like genetically modified tomatoes marketed directly to consumers.
But the fate of many others that are blended into finished food products is
subject to interpretations that must be worked out before the rules take
effect this spring. 

  "For most people, it isn't a matter of immediate safety concerns but
long-term unknowns," said Steven Shaw, technical director for Tesco PLC,
Britain's largest grocery chain. Along with other British grocers, Tesco has
announced plans to demand not only labels for obviously engineered products
like tomatoes but also segregation of genetically engineered crops so that
vegetable oils, canned foods and other products containing them can be
labeled. "But we don't intend to label anything as free of gene-modified
materials because we don't want to imply that is better," Shaw added. 

  The multinational giants of the soybean and grain trade say segregation is
impractical in the long run since farmers, railroads and barge lines
typically mix bean or corn varieties during delivery to processors. 



Copyright 1997 The New York Times