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     Genetically altered foods to be labeled:
     Novartis says move is key to public
     acceptance of products

     By Scott Allen, Globe Staff, 02/25/97

     One of the world's biggest biotechnology
     companies, Novartis, yesterday announced
     plans to label its genetically engineered
     food products, arguing the public can be
     convinced that genetically altered corn and
     other products actually are better than
     their natural counterparts.

     Genetically engineered foods have caused
     controversy on both sides of the Atlantic,
     as European companies have refused to buy
     genetically altered soybeans from US
     farmers, while American activists have
     campaigned against milk from cows that
     receive a synthetic hormone to enhance
     production.

     But Wolfgang Samo, head of agribusiness for
     Switzerland-based Novartis, said
     genetically engineered foods are the way of
     the future. He predicted that half or more
     of the US corn crop could one day be grown
     from seeds whose genes have been altered in
     a lab, and said it is time for the industry
     to begin educating the public about the
     virtue of their work.

     ``Genetically enhanced products are overall
     superior to conventional ones. Industry
     should have many reasons to label them,''
     said Samo at a Tufts University conference
     on crop production. ``If we believe in the
     `right to choose' for consumers, the
     industry cannot reasonably argue against
     labels facilitating the choice.''

     Opponents of genetic engineering applauded
     Novartis's disclosure plans, but they were
     skeptical the information would reach
     consumers. Novartis sells products to
     farmers, most of whom oppose disclosure of
     genetically altered seeds. The major food
     processors also oppose disclosure on the
     grounds it is unnecessary and costly to
     segregate crops.

     ``We agree with their rhetoric, but we will
     agree they are serious'' when major food
     processors such as Cargill and Archer
     Daniels Midland agree to help spread the
     word about genetically engineered products,
     said Ronnie Cummins, director of an
     anti-genetic engineering group, Pure Food
     Campaign, in Minnesota.

     Cummins's group believes genetic
     engineering - in which, for example, fish
     genes may be inserted into a tomato -
     breaks down barriers between species,
     potentially exposing people to new diseases
     and weakening the effectiveness of
     medicines.

     The US Food and Drug Administration has not
     found that genetically engineered products
     pose special dangers and has allowed the
     sale of genetically engineered tomatoes,
     milk, corn, and soybeans. However, FDA
     officials said genetic engineering does
     pose some risk: One company canceled plans
     for a soybean implanted with a gene from
     the Brazil nut because the gene carried a
     harmful allergen.

     FDA biotechnology coordinator James
     Maryanski praised Novartis's disclosure
     policy, suggesting that the industry may be
     able to solve the emotionally charged issue
     of the public's right to know without
     government intervention. Currently, the FDA
     doesn't require the information to be made
     public.

     ``It's very admirable for the company to
     take that kind of stance because ... what
     is going to help the consumer is actually
     seeing products'' that have been
     genetically altered, said Maryanski.

     Novartis, the product of a merger between
     Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz in December, has only
     one genetically engineered product on the
     market, a strain of corn that is resistant
     to European corn borers. Bags of the seed
     already carry a disclosure that they
     contain genetically engineered material.

     But yesterday's announcement was meant to
     trigger a debate at a time when the
     industry is under fire.

     This story ran on page d1 of the Boston
     Globe on 02/25/97.

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