US Biotech Industry Still Refuses to Label or Safety-Test--
Despite Increasing Consumer Concerns-New York Times

September 8, 1999
The New York Times


Genes Are Changed, but Not the Label


When a field of genetically altered corn at
the University of Maine
was destroyed by protesters in mid-August,
it was a rare hint
that uneasiness over bioengineering in agriculture
is growing among
Americans. Such actions have become common
overseas, with
experimental fields burned in England, and the
European Union and
Japan decreeing that genetically engineered food
be labeled. But
Americans have so far been slow to anger.

One reason may be that most of them don't have a
clue that many foods
are already being made with genetically engineered
ingredients: no
labeling is required in this country, nor is
government approval.

But the September issue of Consumer Reports
includes a surprising
shopping list of products tested by Consumers
Union that were found to
contain genetically engineered soy, corn or other
ingredients. Among
them were three powdered baby formulas -- Enfamil
Prosobee soy
formula, Similac Isomil soy formula and Nestle
Carnation Alsoy -- as
well as several soy burgers, including Boca
Burger, Chef Max's Favorite,
Morningstar Farms Better 'n Burgers and Green
Giant Harvest Burgers.
Ovaltine Malt powdered beverage mix, Bac-Os Bacon
Flavor bits,
Bravos Tortilla Chips Nacho Nacho, Old El Paso 12
taco shells and Jiffy
Corn muffin mix also tested positive for
genetically altered ingredients.

Consumers Union said it tested breakfast cereals
and cooking oils too,
but that the results were inconclusive. It also
reported that 60 percent of
all hard-cheese products are made with a biotech
version of rennet, the
enzyme from calves' stomachs. And it analyzed
McDonald's McVeggie
Burgers, sold in some of the chain's New York City
restaurants, which
also tested positive.

Consumers Union said it chose to test foods that
were likely to include
genetically altered ingredients; the testing
analyzed the DNA makeup of
those foods.

Genetic engineering involves the splicing of plant
or animal genes into the
DNA of other species, either to improve crop
yields or to ward off
insects or disease. Corn, potatoes, squash,
papayas, soybeans and
canola are among the bioengineered crops already
on the market. All a
company has to do to grow bioengineered products
is certify to the
Agriculture Department that it will take safety

Because so few safety studies have been done,
there is no evidence that
genetically engineered food now on the market is
unsafe to eat. But some
scientists and consumer advocates worry about the
potential for
unknown allergens, an increase in natural toxic
substances, a decrease in
nutritional value and especially environmental
damage. In addition, some
religious groups are concerned about the
possibility that genes from
foods they are forbidden to eat will be put into
other foods, like shellfish
genes into a tomato. The environmental concern has
led to protests like
the one in Maine, in which a group calling itself
Seeds of Resistance
claimed responsibility for cutting down 1,000
stalks of genetically
engineered corn in an experimental field hear

But the big issue, as Consumer Reports emphasized,
is whether
consumers should be informed when bioengineered
ingredients are used,
so they can decide whether to avoid them.

A recent survey by the International Food
Information Council found that
71 percent of consumers in this country rated
themselves as poorly
informed about food biotechnology. (Only 2 to 3
percent thought
soybeans are genetically engineered, for
instance.) But when they do
know, they often act. After bovine growth hormone
was approved in
1993 to increase milk production, sales of organic
milk skyrocketed, and
last year they doubled. That still represents only
0.3 percent of the $75
billion dairy market, but analysts say the figure
could reach 2 percent by
2005. Between 10 and 30 percent of the nation's
dairy cows have been
injected with the gene-altered hormone rBGH.

Fears about genetically modified corn were raised
last spring when it was
reported that pollen from the new crop killed
monarch butterfly larvae in
a laboratory experiment. Entomologists at Iowa
State University are
following up on the experiment in the field.
Consumer Reports said that
John Obrycki, one of the entomologists, reported
that mortality data
indicated that there is indeed a threat to the

Since the European Union has refused to accept
some genetically
modified American crops, farmers have begun to pay
attention to the
issue, too. A judge in Brazil has also banned the
sale there of Monsanto's
Roundup Ready soybean seeds, which are resistant
to the company's
Roundup herbicide.

Today, genetically engineered crops cover
one-fourth of the cropland in
the United States, representing 35 percent of all
corn, almost 55 percent
of all soybeans and nearly half of all cotton.

Consumer Reports, which has a circulation of 4.5
million, offered
recommendations for dealing with the issue of
genetically altered foods,
like requiring a federal review of the safety of
such foods for humans
before they are put on the market.

These were some other recommendations:

-- That safety reviews be required before farmers
are allowed to plant
bioengineered species, in an effort to prevent
insects from developing
resistance to pesticides, the creation of
superweeds and harm to
beneficial insects.

-- That a single national standard be established
certifying that "organic"
food meets certain standards, and that genetically
engineered food not be
considered organic. No federal standard exists

-- That the food industry be made liable for
economic or biological
damage resulting from genetically engineered

-- That genetically engineered foods, both
domestic and imported, be
labeled. As the magazine put it, "Consumers have a
fundamental right to
know what they eat."

In a Time magazine poll published last January, 81
percent of the
respondents said genetically engineered food
should be labeled. In fact,
labeling can work more than one way: some dairies
and tofu makers have
found that they can increase sales by noting on
labels that their products
are free of genetically engineered ingredients.