GENTECH archive 8.96-97

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Novartis' Suspicious Rhetoric on Labeling



      By Greg Frost 

    KANSAS CITY, Mo., Feb 24 (Reuter) - Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis
AG took a major step Monday in supporting labeling of genetically altered
crops, but company officials conceded the move will do little to help
consumers know whether the products they buy come from gene-altered crops. 

    The company will label all future genetically engineered seeds it sells
to farmers, said Wolfgang Samo, head of agribusiness at Novartis. 

    Novartis already labels its genetically engineered ``Bt corn'' seeds,
which were designed to create plants that withstand the Eurpoean corn borer
insect. 

    ``We think that these products are overall superior to conventional ones;
otherwise, we would not have a market,'' Samo said in a telephone conference
call from Boston with reporters. ``Industry should thus have many reasons to
label these products, and Novartis is doing this.'' 

    But Samo conceded that consumers still may not know whether their food
came from genetically engineered crops because of the complexities of the
global food market. 

    ``It's not up to us to tell our customers what they should be doing,''
Samo said. ``We give our customers the opportunity ... to make the decison
whether he wants to label or not.'' 

    When genetically engineered corn and soybean seeds were introduced in the
United States last year, opponents -- particularly those in Europe --
demanded they be labeled amid concerns about food safety. 

    Agribusiness groups have opposed the practice, saying it is unnecessary
and will increase costs because genetically engineered crops would have to be
separated from non-genetically engineered crops throughout the food chain. 

    Samo said he believed in the consumer's right to choose, and he said the
industry could not ``reasonably argue'' against labels facilitating this
choice. 

    But Samo also said Novartis could not make the decision to label the
product that makes its way through the crop marketing chain to grocery store
shelves or to livestock feedyards. That decision was left up to ``our
customers' customers' customer,'' he said. 

    Opponents of genetically modified crops reacted with scepticism to
Novartis' announcement. 

    ``It sounds like smoke and mirrors,'' said Beth Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman
for the environmental group Greenpeace in Chicago. 

    ``When they say they support consumers' right to choose, they're talking
about the farmers they heavily lobby to buy their product,'' she said. ``It
sounds to me like they're playing games with the whole concept of consumers'
right to choose.'' 

02:43 02-25-97