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Ohio Congressman to Introduce Mandatory Labeling Bill for GE Foods

"Inspired by butterflies, Kucinich seeks labels for altered foods"

Wednesday, September 29, 1999

By SABRINA EATON
PLAIN DEALER (Cleveland, Ohio)

WASHINGTON - In Europe, activists fearful of genetically engineered crops
have destroyed test fields, urinated on seeds and dumped manure in front of
McDonald's restaurants serving products that contain them.

In Troy, Ohio, 20 miles north of Dayton, farmer and produce stand operator
Bill Fulton doesn't understand all the fuss. "We think it is a big advantage
because you don't have to spray all those pesticides," said Fulton, who has
planted some of his 2,000 acres with genetically modified corn that resists
insects and soybeans that withstand weed killer.

Fulton's corn is a hybrid that contains genes from a bacterium that produces
a natural pesticide. Scientists who mingle genes from across the
evolutionary map to get hardier plants have even created tomatoes with a
flounder gene to boost cold resistance.

But recent studies where pollen from corn like Fulton's killed monarch
butterflies worry Dennis Kucinich, who has watched in awe as the monarchs
fly over Lake Erie on their yearly 2,000-mile migration from Canada to
Mexico.

The Democratic congressman from Cleveland is drafting a bill that would
require food companies that use genetically modified substances to put
labels on their boxes, cans, bottles, jars and wrappers. Though purported
health hazards from such products are widely debated, the labels would warn
consumers and let them make up their own minds.

Similar labels already are required in Europe, where several varieties of
genetically altered food are banned. Kucinich, who shops in health food
stores and eats no meat or dairy products, is formulating a letter to send
colleagues about genetically modified products, and plans to introduce his
bill later this year.

"I always thought Frankenstein was a book or a movie, not a food," said
Kucinich, who fears the new crop strains might endanger the environment or
produce substances that are poisonous or cause allergies. "These foods have
moved forward with the presumption that everything is fine, when there
haven't been any long-term studies because they're so new."

Like the Europeans who protest bio-engineered food, Kucinich is concerned
that there hasn't been enough research to predict the long-term consequences
of growing and eating these products.

Introduced over the past decade, genetically altered crops are widespread in
the United States. A recent Consumer Reports magazine study found them in
everything from McDonald's Veggie Burgers to taco shells to Ovaltine
powdered beverage mix. Many products made at Nestle USA Inc.'s Solon
facility contain genetically altered soybean oil, a spokeswoman said.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said around 50 genetically modified plant
varieties have been approved by the USDA. They include corn, soybeans,
tomatoes, squash, potatoes, sunflowers, peanuts, canola, and cotton,
according to the Biotechnology Industry Association. The group said that
genetically modified sugar beets, rice, wheat, peppers, bananas, and
strawberries, as well as fish that will reach market size in one year
instead of the usual three, are slated for introduction in the next six
years.

Dangers debated

The Food and Drug Administration and most U.S. food producers don't think
the genetically altered products pose any danger or differ significantly
>from their conventional counterparts, said Grocery Manufacturers of America
spokesman Brian Sansoni, who feels labels are unwarranted.

"The bottom line is, a tomato is a tomato is a tomato," said Sansoni,
estimating 44 percent of the country's soybeans and 36 percent of its corn
are grown from biotechnically enhanced seeds. He said corn and soybeans were
among the most common ingredients in food produced in the United States.

He couldn't guess the cost of Kucinich's proposal, but said food producers
spent $2 billion to $4 billion implementing nutritional labels mandated by
Congress in the early 1990s. They would have to decide how to pay for the
new labels Kucinich is proposing, but the cost could be passed along to
consumers, Sansoni said.

Several countries in Europe, including Norway, have banned genetically
engineered foods altogether. The European Union allows imports of some
strains, but not others. Europe's worries over the products have made
several U.S. companies with large exports, like the Dayton pet food maker
Iams Co., stop buying grain varieties that aren't approved by the European
Union.

"We are a global company and our suppliers understand that's why we made
this decision," said Iams spokesman Bryan Brown.

Glickman said the European distrust was "scientifically unfounded," but
understandable in countries that had food scares like mad cow disease, and
lack independent regulatory agenies like those that oversee the U.S. food
supply: the Agriculture Department, FDA and Environmental Protection Agency.

Better testing suggested

In a recent speech, Glickman said better testing of biotechnology products
would help ease consumer fears. Glickman said he believes "some type of
informational labeling is likely to happen," though he cautioned the
labeling shouldn't "undermine trade and this promising new technology."

Ohio Republican congressmen John Boehner and Paul Gillmor dismiss European
concerns as little more than ways to keep out U.S. exports, propping up
European economies. They don't think the labels are necessary because they
don't think the new technology differs much from plant hybrids farmers have
produced for centuries.

In a speech, Robert B. Shapiro, the Chief Executive Officer of the St. Louis
biotechnology giant Monsanto Co., said genetic engineering was different
>from earlier hybridizing because manipulating DNA itself touches on "the
very wellsprings of life."

"Almost everything we grow, everything we eat is the root result of human
intervention, breeding, and so on," he said. "But this is unnatural in a
different sort of way from the kinds of breeding programs that have
characterized humanity for thousands of years."

Farmers and biotech companies like Monsanto say labels would affect food
producers, not them. Monsanto says its products ease the work burden of
farmers and are better for the environment because they reduce reliance on
pest control chemicals. Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Fisher said use of
genetically altered corn has prevented spraying of 800,000 gallons of
pesticide yearly in the United States.

She said biotech companies extensively test the products with FDA
supervision before they go on the market.

Says James Maryanski, who coordinates the FDA's biotechnology policy: "In a
nutshell, we are asking the companies to show that if they have introduced a
new substance to the food, that it is safe, digestible, non-toxic and not
likely to be allergenic, and that the nutrients, vitamins and other
substances in the food have not been altered in any significant way."

But nutritionists Joan Gussow of Columbia University Teachers College in New
York and Laura Sims of the University of Maryland, support labels because
they believe there still are unanswered questions about the biotechnically
altered foods.

Gussow, who is helping to devise upcoming USDA standards for organic
labeling, said she hasn't seen evidence that the crops are detrimental, but
long-term effects on humans and the ecosystem "are largely unknown."

"Labeling would really give consumers the choice," said Sims, who helped
devise the nutritional food labels on groceries.

©1999 THE PLAIN DEALER.

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