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White House Tries to Figure Out Labeling Scheme
to Coopt Resistance to GE Foods


Food labeling is seen as a way to win support for genetically altered foods

By Robert Steyer
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 24, 1999

A federal task force is expected to
report by the end of July on whether
the nation's food labeling laws should be
revised to reflect generally
engineered crops, top U.S. agriculture
officials said Monday in St. Louis.

The task force's deliberations come at a
time when opposition to
genetically altered foods - among
consumers, food companies and
politicians - is accelerating overseas,
especially in Europe. Monsanto
Co. has been a leader in genetically
engineered crops.

The food label task force, which was
activated six weeks ago, includes
representatives from the Agriculture
Department, Food and Drug
Administration, State Department,
Environmental Protection Agency
and the U.S. Trade Representative's
office, said Isi A. Siddiqui, special
assistant for trade to Agriculture
Secretary Dan Glickman.

Siddiqui and Glickman told the
Post-Dispatch on Monday that there has
been no change in the government's
position that food should be
labeled only if ingredients change the
nutritional content or could
cause allergies.

Domestic critics say biotech foods should
be labeled to give consumers
a choice. The food and biotechnology
industries criticize that proposal
as expensive and unnecessary.

But several European and Asian nations
are implementing or proposing
labeling laws that would distinguish
modified ingredients. Some food
companies overseas, especially in Great
Britain say they won't sell food
with bioengineered ingredients.

"It's clear that labeling can be a
sensible way of providing information,
but we have to make sure that the
labeling is responsible," Glickman
said.

Labeling is only one of the disputes
between the United States and a
growing number of countries, especially
the 15-nation European Union,
that threaten to erupt into an
agricultural trade war.

Glickman repeated his willingness to
impose tariffs on European Union
goods worth $202 million, replying to the
EU's refusal to accept imports
of U.S. hormone-treated beef. Glickman
said he is moving to seek
World Trade Organization approval for the
tariffs, which could be in
place by July.

But as nasty as this fight has become,
Glickman warned that disputes
over bioengineered crops "could make beef
hormones look like the
minor leagues."

In a related development, Glickman said
that next month he will select
a 25-member committee to counsel his
department on how
biotechnology affects issues ranging from
trade to small farms. This
permanent committee, whose formation was
announced in March, will
include consumer advocates,
environmentalists, scientists, corporate
executives and farmers.

Glickman was the keynote speaker Monday
at the first World
Congress, organized by the World
Agricultural Forum, a St. Louis-based
organization created by scientists,
educators and executives. He told
the audience that companies must temper
the wonders of science with
the concerns of consumers.

"My confidence in biotechnology and the
industry's confidence in
biotechnology are ultimately irrelevant
if the consumers aren't buying,"
Glickman said. "We can't force-feed GMOs
[genetically modified
organisms] to reluctant consumers. We
have to bring them along. The
public opinion poll is as important as
the test tube."

He added that a greater embrace of
consumers doesn't weaken the
federal government's demand for strict
scientific standards in
evaluating food for domestic and foreign
use. "Nations can't mask
protectionism with unevaluated, secret
studies," he said. "We have to
have rules-based trade."

Glickman said U.S. food and biotech
companies must recognize that
American consumers "are more willing to
accept science as a force for
progress" than are other consumers - a
theme echoed by several
speakers.

"European consumers are more interested
in traditional foods," said
W. Guy Walker, a British food consultant
and former executive at
Unilever. He recommended that food
companies agree to labeling of
foods containing genetically engineered
ingredients.

Walker cited the example of a British
company that offers a tomato
paste, labeled as containing
bioengineered tomatoes, next to a
traditional tomato paste. "There has been
virtually no dispute," he
said.

Displaying a list of European nations
where opposition far exceeded
support for food biotechnology, Walker
said consumers rebel because
they lack a choice.

Labeling and separating genetically
modified food from traditional food
is the best way to offer a choice and to
neutralize opposition and
suspicion. "Once consumers are scared,
especially on safety grounds, it
takes a long time to win their confidence
to try new things," he said.

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