USDA Tries to Coopt Consumer Demand for Mandatory
Labels on GE Food

More US firms seen adopting bio-food labels
By Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Regardless of how the StarLink bio-corn safety
debate plays out, more U.S. foodmakers will likely begin voluntarily labeling
products with gene-spliced ingredients to give consumers more information,
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said Monday.

Labeling is one of the key issues in the battle between U.S.
environmentalists and agribusiness over regulation of bio-foods.

Many European and Asian nations already require labels on foods containing
genetically modified corn, soybeans, tomatoes and other crops. But American
industry groups oppose mandatory labeling in the United States because of
the cost and the worry that consumers may interpret it as a warning that a
food is less safe.

The recent controversy over StarLink gene-spliced corn -- a variety not
approved for use in human food but found in tacos and chips -- has raised
fresh questions about bioengineered foods.

"I think the trend is unstoppable toward more and more labeling," Glickman
told Reuters in an interview.

"We've got to recognize that the consumer is king or queen in this mess," he
said. "Folks are going to want to know what's in their food."

Glickman, who is wrapping up nearly six years as President Clinton's
agriculture secretary, has long been an advocate of biotechnology as a way
to improve farm yields and reduce pesticides. All the gene-altered foods now
on the market have been thoroughly tested and are safe for human health and
the environment, he said.

"By fighting labeling, you give the impression that there is something wrong
with the product," Glickman added.

No Need for Label Mandate

While labels may be needed to satisfy consumer hunger for more information
about foods they buy, the government should not require them, Glickman said.

"I'm not calling for mandatory labeling because we don't have any of the
testing and threshold mechanisms, or would really know how to do it," he

But many foodmakers, which are keenly aware of consumer shopping habits and
preferences, are likely to adopt voluntary labels.

"You're going to find more and more companies engaged in labeling," Glickman
said. "We have to work with them to make sure it's sensible, that the
labeling means something and that it's not frightening."

The Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over food labels, is
expected to soon issue guidelines to be used by companies that want to
voluntarily label foods. The FDA is also expected to begin requiring
companies to consult with agency scientists before taking new bio-food to

Currently, only a few foods sold in organic food stores carry labels which
say they are free of any biotech crops. Industry experts have estimated that
more than half of U.S. foods sold in typical grocery stores -- ranging from
salad dressings to snack foods to breakfast cereals -- contain gene-altered
soybeans, corn or other crops.

Two bills that would require some form of labeling were introduced earlier
this year in Congress by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Rep. Dennis
Kucinich of Ohio, both Democrats. The legislation is likely to resurface
when the new Congress meets in January, although it remains unclear how much
bipartisan support the bills can muster.


The discovery of StarLink contamination in taco shells, chips and cornmeal
in late September has focused new attention on biotech crops.

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to hold a public hearing Tuesday
as regulators consider whether to grant temporary approval of StarLink in
human food. If they do not, StarLink maker Aventis SA may face tens of
millions of dollars in liability claims by foodmakers, grain elevators,
farmers and consumers.

Aventis, which has submitted new science data to the EPA, contends StarLink
is safe for human consumption and carries little, if any, risk of triggering
diarrhea, rashes, respiratory problems or other allergic reactions.

Meanwhile, the USDA is continuing to help Aventis buy back as much of the
autumn StarLink harvest as possible to prevent it from tainting the food

The action to strictly segregate StarLink corn for animal feed or ethanol
production is being carried out "on a product which in my judgment has no
human health risks whatsoever," Glickman said.

"Production agriculture, consumer groups and the food companies are all
going to have a few years of major challenges as we look at the science of
these issues and as we see how they should be properly regulated," he said.
"We're facing that now during the StarLink discussion."

15:37 11-27-00

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