Next Food Fight Brewing Is Over Listing Genes on Labels
Processors, Retailers Resisting Demand of Some Consumer
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 1999; Page A17
Food is more thoroughly labeled than ever. When shoppers go
to the grocery store, they can tell at a glance how much
salt, sugar, fiber, fat and selected nutrients each item
But labels do not disclose perhaps the most controversial
change in the nature of food these days: the addition of
genes from unrelated organisms through genetic engineering.
Now, spurred by a debate over possible health and
environmental risks from gene-altered foods in Europe,
where labeling rules are already in force, some Americans
are starting to call for such labels here as well.
It is a demand that the food industry desperately hopes
will go away. But many experts believe that the labeling
issue will be the battleground on which the war over
engineered food will be fought.
"Labeling is absolutely a critical acid test issue for the
U.S. biotech food industry," said Charles Benbrook, a
consultant on biotechnology for Consumers Union and a
former executive director of the National Research
Council's board on agriculture, an arm of the National
Academy of Sciences.
Until recently, no one in the United States seemed to care
whether gene-modified food was labeled. But that's
Last summer, two consumer groups sued the Food and Drug
Administration, claiming that the agency's failure to
institute a labeling regimen for gene-altered food is in
violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The law
demands that food additives not "generally recognized as
safe" be labeled. This spring, activists gathered a
half-million signatures calling for labeling of
gene-altered food and submitted them to Congress and other
Most food processors and retailers are opposed. They note
that U.S. regulators have deemed gene-altered food safe,
and they warn that labels could cost consumers millions of
Most important, they say, mandatory labels would wrongly
imply that safety or nutritional value has been compromised
in these foods, undermining confidence in the high-tech
varieties that producers claim will ultimately help feed
the world's growing population.
"The concern," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, "is that a label would
be seen as a stigma, like a skull and crossbones."
The industry is also wary of labels saying "free of
genetically engineered ingredients," because such labels
might imply superiority, as in "fat free." The Grocery
Manufacturers of America (GMA) recently announced that it
and other groups would initiate a $1 million advertising
and educational campaign to counter the nascent U.S.
anti-biotech and pro-labeling movements.
"We are trying to effectively reach out so what has
happened in certain European countries does not happen
here," said GMA spokesman Gene Grabowski. "In our view a
lot of clamor and misinformation and hysteria has been
allowed to overwhelm reasonable debate on this issue."
The industry's position raises the difficult question of
whether there are appropriate limits to the amount of
information that should be made available to consumers and,
if so, who should decide them. The FDA and the food
industry say labels should be reserved for relevant,
"science-based" information. But a number of consumers
believe that science should not be the sole criterion.
Some orthodox rabbis, for example, say their strict dietary
laws require them to know when a foreign gene -- say, a pig
gene -- has been spliced into their food. (No pig genes
have been put into crops, but one has been experimentally
engineered into salmon to accelerate growth.)
Other shoppers are concerned about the ecological risks
that some scientists have said gene-altered agriculture
poses. They don't want their purchasing dollars to support
biotech agriculture, but they find the "organic" niche too
Biotech labeling is not unprecedented in this country. In
1993, Ben & Jerry's triggered a three-year legal battle by
labeling its products as containing milk only from cows
raised free of a genetically engineered hormone that boosts
"People can say 'dolphin-free tuna' and 'stone-ground
wheat,' " said Liz Bankowski, a senior director for the
company in South Burlington, Vt. "We felt strongly that
people have the right to know how their milk is produced."
After tangling with federal and state regulators over the
issue, Ben & Jerry's won the right to keep the label as
long as it is accompanied by a disclaimer saying the FDA
considers the milk equivalent to conventional milk, and
that in any case there is no known way of testing milk to
confirm whether it is really free of the offending hormone.
That problem of being able to back up a claim that a food
either contains or does not contain genetically engineered
ingredients has plagued regulators in the European Union,
where a law went into effect in September saying all
gene-modified foods must be labeled.
The European law did not specify how much gene-altered
material must be present to trigger a label. Now EU
ministers are having to negotiate whether a food can avoid
the label if it has less than, say, 1 percent engineered
ingredients. They must also decide whether "1 percent"
means 1 percent of the whole product or 1 percent of the
ingredient in question.
Complicating the issue, altered DNA or proteins can
disappear during processing, so products can test negative
despite their gene-altered origins. At the same time, even
a sprinkling of engineered cornmeal or soy flour from a
previous shipment can make an entire grain silo or rail car
of otherwise unengineered food test falsely positive as
Melodi Nelson has a good sense of what that can mean. Last
fall, testers in Europe detected traces of genetically
engineered corn in organic corn chips made by her company,
Prima Terra Inc. of Hudson, Wis. Some of the corn supplied
to Prima Terra from a certified organic supplier was
contaminated, it turned out, with minuscule amounts of
gene-altered corn, perhaps because a few grains of
engineered pollen blew into the organic grower's fields
from a neighboring farm. The positive test forced Prima
Terra to recall 87,000 bags of chips valued at $147,000.
"It broke my heart," she said.
What do consumers really want? Consumer groups cite studies
indicating that 80 to 90 percent of Americans think
gene-altered food ought to be marked, and 50 to 60 percent
say they would choose nonengineered food if they could. But
other studies have found that those numbers drop
precipitously when people are given additional information,
such as that the FDA has deemed the food safe and
"In focus groups, consumers say, 'Tell us if there is
something meaningful or different or good or bad,' " said
Tom Hoban, a professor of sociology at North Carolina State
University in Raleigh, who has done research on biotech
labels. "Consumers are saying, 'I have enough food anxiety,
and phew, I don't want to worry about something else unless
I have to.' "
Consumers have also balked when told labeling may
significantly increase the cost of the food. Grocery groups
have not made specific cost estimates but argue that
labeling would entail creating expensive separate
transportation and processing streams for engineered and
Yet quietly, some of America's largest agricultural
corporations have begun to do just that. In June, Archer
Daniels Midland Co., the giant commodities processor and
merchandiser, said it would separate U.S.-grown
nonengineered crops for export to European countries.
Several large American growers have begun using
gene-testing companies to certify food as free of foreign
And as confident as American companies say they are about
the safety of gene-altered food, fear of public rejection
has them on the defensive. Last month, when Greenpeace
announced that one kind of Gerber baby food contained
gene-altered ingredients, the company quickly announced it
would find a supplier that could guarantee nonengineered
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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