The action heightens concern that even larger markets like the European Union could take steps to restrict imports of genetically modified crops.
The Egyptian Health Ministry has issued a decree that it will require imports of commodities meant for human consumption to be accompanied by proof that genetic engineering was not used in their production. The news seeped out after traders were given a copy of the order, dated July 1, this week.
Timothy Galvin, associate administrator at USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, said the department was looking into the decree and had not yet been able to talk with Egyptian government officials because of a holiday.
``We're pressing for a meeting on Monday,'' Galvin said. ``We're not worried but very concerned, and that's why we're trying to meet with Egyptian agriculture officials.''
Galvin said the department was alerted to the move by the U.S. grain industry Wednesday and that so far it had not affected the flow of trade.
Egypt was the No. 2 purchaser of U.S. wheat after Japan last year, buying 2.9 million metric tons in the 1996-97 marketing year. There is no genetically altered wheat on the market, so U.S. exports will likely not be disrupted.
However, Egypt is also a big customer of U.S. corn, a crop that has been heavily planted to gene-altered seed. Egypt ranked as the No. 6 buyer last year. So far in the 1996-97 marketing year, it has purchased 2.3 million tons. U.S. exporters said they were worried the order may impact future business.
The news is a fresh headache for the Clinton administration, which has thrown its weight behind biotech crops as the best hope of feeding a hungry world. U.S. farmers have planted them in great numbers, seeking to raise yields and cut costs by using less pesticide.
But the technology has met with scepticism abroad.
U.S. and EU officials have clashed strongly over draft EU rules that call for labeling of foods made with biotech crops and demands by some EU activists that biotech crops be handled, stored and sold separately from other crops.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said biotechnology was shaping up to be ``the first battle royal of 21st-century world agriculture.''
``We will lead the fight against those who represent what I believe is a know-nothing position on these issues,'' he said in a speech. ``As long as these products prove safe, we will not tolerate their segregation. We will not allow passion to trump reason on this issue.''