Coalition Files Lawsuit Against U.S. to Force Labels on Genetically Engineered Food
Lawsuit challenges U.S. agency on gene-altered foods

By Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON, May 27 (Reuters) - Genetically altered tomatoes, corn, soybeans
and other foods should be pulled off the market until U.S. regulators have
fully assessed the health risks to consumers, a group of scientists, religious
leaders and consumer activists claimed in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The lawsuit challenged Food and Drug Administration policies, alleging that
regulators have been too eager to let companies sell altered foods without
requiring safety tests, or at the very least, special labels.

Green groups in several other countries have demanded that foods containing
gene-altered DNA or proteins carry a label clearly informing consumers. But
U.S. trade officials and agribusiness executives have insisted that such
labels are unnecessary because genetic engineering does not affect food
safety.

"By failing to require testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods,
the agency has made consumers unknowing guinea pigs for potentially harmful,
unregulated food substances," said Andrew Kimbrell, head of the International
Center for Technology Assessment, a nonprofit group that led the lawsuit.

In an unusual coalition, consumer group's lawsuit was also joined by
biologists from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of
Minnesota and several other universities, as well as a rabbi, a Protestant
minister and a prominent New York restaurant chef.

"My business is based on trust," said Rick Moonen, chef and partner of the
Oceana restaurant. "Customers have the right to know about genetically
modified foods so they can make an educated decision about whether to eat
something."

A growing amount of popular consumer foods -- such as soy baby formula and
corn chips -- contain cooking and processing ingredients from genetically
altered crops, Kimbrell said.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, also asks that some three
dozen genetically modified commodities already on the market be remanded to
the FDA for more study.

Food and biotechnology companies maintain that genetic modifications are
simply a new form of traditional breeding techniques to promote desirable
plant traits and protect crops from pests.

"There is no scientifically-valued distinction between the safety of
genetically enhanced food and food grown by traditional methods," said Stephen
Ziller, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "It would be
enormously impractical to label every genetically modified new crop and would
falsely imply a difference in the foods' safety."

The FDA said it was satisfied that companies were providing adequate
scientific studies and documentation of the safety of genetically altered
foods.

"Virtually every food you buy has been altered by traditional breeding and is
not as nature intended it," said Eric Flamm, a senior policy adviser at the
FDA. "We have no evidence that any genetically engineered foods on the market
contain unapproved food additives or are adulterated."

The FDA does require food labels to carry information when a product has been
substantially altered, such as in the case of canola engineered to produce
higher levels of certain oils.

In another instance, the agency ordered a company to prepare a special label
for a gene-altered soybean that had Brazil nut protein added to it. Although
the soybean was intended only for sale as poultry food, the FDA said a label
was necessary because of the slim chance that a consumer allergic to Brazil
nuts might consume it.

In the end, the company decided not to market the product because of the extra
expense of labeling, Flamm said.

21:54 05-27-98


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