WASHINGTON -- A coalition of scientists, public-interest organizations and
religious groups filed suit Wednesday against the Food and Drug
Administration, seeking to have 36 genetically engineered foods taken off the
market and asking that the agency be forced to comprehensively test and label
The suit, filed here in U.S. District Court, strikes at an industry born in
Northern California. In recent years it has produced a bumper crop of
genetically altered foods, ranging from the slower-ripening Flavr Savr Tomato
from Davis-based Calgene Inc. to insect-resistant corn and soybeans.
The suit contends that exchanging genetic information across breeds and
species puts consumers at various risks, from unwittingly eating foods with
genes from substances they may be allergic to -- or are prohibited by
religious guidelines from eating -- to the potential danger of a technology at
the cutting edge of science. Already, genetically engineered soybeans are
showing up in soy-based baby formulas, and corn from altered seed is found in
corn chips, backers of the suit said.
``By failing to require testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods,
the FDA has made millions of American consumers the guinea pigs to test the
safety of these foods,'' said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the
International Center for Technology Assessment, a Washington-based public-
interest group among those filing the suit.
If successful, the suit could hinder companies such as Calgene, now a
subsidiary of Monsanto, and DNA Plant Technology of Oakland. Scott Thenell,
director of regulatory affairs for DNA Plant Technology, said the FDA's
current process works fine to get consumers the nutritional information they
``It's imperative that foods that are marketed be safe for consumers, and a
developer is going to do everything that is reasonable and logical to
establish that safety,'' said Thenell, whose company has engineered a delayed-
ripening tomato that could come to market next year. ``I could envision that
if there was a prescribed set of tests that had to be done and for some reason
it was over and above what companies are already doing, it could delay the
introduction of these new varieties.''
FDA and industry officials say genetically engineered foods are tested by the
producers and reviewed in a voluntary consultation process with the FDA that
no company with good business sense would bypass. And mandating a label on a
tomato or bottle of cooking oil that says it was produced by genetic
engineering would not give consumers any substantive information about the
nutritional value of the food or other important characteristics, which is the
only type of label the FDA says it can require.
``It's similar to saying whether grapes are picked by scab labor or union
labor,'' said Eric Flamm, a senior policy adviser at the FDA who deals with
biotechnology issues. ``Some people are interested in it. It's not within our
jurisdiction to require labeling like that.''
The groups backing the suit say the FDA does have jurisdiction because genetic
engineering causes material changes in the food that federal law requires to
be identified in labeling. The suit also says the insertion of genetic
material into foods should be considered a food additive, which requires
safety testing, such as the rigorous testing given the fat-replacement
The suit also charges that not labeling genetically altered foods violates the
Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution because it burdens the free exercise of religion by, for example,
Jews and Muslims who have to avoid certain foods.
``The failure of the FDA to label these foods substantially burdens a person's
free exercise of their religious beliefs,'' said Joseph Mendleson, legal
director for the International Center for Technology Assessment. Several
plaintiffs in the suit belong to faiths that have such regimens, ``and the
only way in which they feel they can adhere to their beliefs and/or their
dietary regimens is through labeling and knowing what foods are out there and
how to avoid those foods.''
Backers of the suit said at a news conference Wednesday they were not opposed
to genetic engineering -- just the lack of regulation of the growing numbers
of products. They listed 36 genetically engineered foods currently on the
``This is not all about fear and worry,'' said Jean Halloran, director of the
Consumer Policy Institute of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer
Reports. ``In general it is quite possible that much, a majority, maybe even
the vast majority, of this food will turn out to be safe. But what we need are
the assessments and the information for consumers.''
But Henry Miller, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at
Stanford University, said people who want mandatory labeling of genetically
engineered foods just want to stop the development of products they are
``What we're seeing is people who have decided they don't like a new
technology and are trying any means, any maneuver, to disrupt it and to make
it less commercially viable,'' said Miller, former director of the FDA's
office of biotechnology. Current genetic engineering is just an extension of
cruder engineering done through breeding for centuries, he said.
That's been the argument companies using biotechnology have made for new food
products like corn and cotton that produce their own insecticide and soybeans
that are resistant to a common herbicide. Flamm said the FDA is not bowing to
large multinational firms like Monsanto.
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