Giant US Food Corporations & Biotech Industry Are
Terrified of Mandatory Labels on GE Food
Next Food Fight Brewing Is Over Listing Genes on Labels - By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer - Sunday, August 15, 1999; Page A17
Food is more thoroughly labeled than ever. When shoppers go to the grocery
store, they can tell at a glance how much salt, sugar, fiber, fat and
selected nutrients each item contains.
But labels do not disclose perhaps the most controversial change in the
nature of food these days: the addition of genes from unrelated organisms
through genetic engineering.
Now, spurred by a debate over possible health and environmental risks from
gene-altered foods in Europe, where labeling rules are already in force,
some Americans are starting to call for such labels here as well.
It is a demand that the food industry desperately hopes will go away. But
many experts believe that the labeling issue will be the battleground on
which the war over engineered food will be fought.
"Labeling is absolutely a critical acid test issue for the U.S. biotech
food industry," said Charles Benbrook, a consultant on biotechnology for
Consumers Union and a former executive director of the National Research
Council's board on agriculture, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
Until recently, no one in the United States seemed to care whether
gene-modified food was labeled. But that's changing.
Last summer, two consumer groups sued the Food and Drug Administration,
claiming that the agency's failure to institute a labeling regimen for
gene-altered food is in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The
law demands that food additives not "generally recognized as safe" be
labeled. This spring, activists gathered a half-million signatures calling
for labeling of gene-altered food and submitted them to Congress and other
Most food processors and retailers are opposed. They note that U.S.
regulators have deemed gene-altered food safe, and they warn that labels
could cost consumers millions of dollars.
Most important, they say, mandatory labels would wrongly imply that safety
or nutritional value has been compromised in these foods, undermining
confidence in the high-tech varieties that producers claim will ultimately
help feed the world's growing population.
"The concern," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry
Organization, "is that a label would be seen as a stigma, like a skull and
The industry is also wary of labels saying "free of genetically engineered
ingredients," because such labels might imply superiority, as in "fat
free." The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) recently announced that
it and other groups would initiate a $1 million advertising and educational
campaign to counter the nascent U.S. anti-biotech and pro-labeling
"We are trying to effectively reach out so what has happened in certain
European countries does not happen here," said GMA spokesman Gene
Grabowski. "In our view a lot of clamor and misinformation and hysteria has
been allowed to overwhelm reasonable debate on this issue."
The industry's position raises the difficult question of whether there are
appropriate limits to the amount of information that should be made
available to consumers and, if so, who should decide them. The FDA and the
food industry say labels should be reserved for relevant, "science-based"
information. But a number of consumers believe that science should not be
the sole criterion.
Some orthodox rabbis, for example, say their strict dietary laws require
them to know when a foreign gene -- say, a pig gene -- has been spliced
into their food. (No pig genes have been put into crops, but one has been
experimentally engineered into salmon to accelerate growth.)
Other shoppers are concerned about the ecological risks that some
scientists have said gene-altered agriculture poses. They don't want their
purchasing dollars to support biotech agriculture, but they find the
"organic" niche too limited.
Biotech labeling is not unprecedented in this country. In 1993, Ben &
Jerry's triggered a three-year legal battle by labeling its products as
containing milk only from cows raised free of a genetically engineered
hormone that boosts milk production.
"People can say 'dolphin-free tuna' and 'stone-ground wheat,' " said Liz
Bankowski, a senior director for the company in South Burlington, Vt. "We
felt strongly that people have the right to know how their milk is
After tangling with federal and state regulators over the issue, Ben &
Jerry's won the right to keep the label as long as it is accompanied by a
disclaimer saying the FDA considers the milk equivalent to conventional
milk, and that in any case there is no known way of testing milk to confirm
whether it is really free of the offending hormone.
That problem of being able to back up a claim that a food either contains
or does not contain genetically engineered ingredients has plagued
regulators in the European Union, where a law went into effect in September
saying all gene-modified foods must be labeled.
The European law did not specify how much gene-altered material must be
present to trigger a label. Now EU ministers are having to negotiate
whether a food can avoid the label if it has less than, say, 1 percent
engineered ingredients. They must also decide whether "1 percent" means 1
percent of the whole product or 1 percent of the ingredient in question.
Complicating the issue, altered DNA or proteins can disappear during
processing, so products can test negative despite their gene-altered
origins. At the same time, even a sprinkling of engineered cornmeal or soy
flour from a previous shipment can make an entire grain silo or rail car of
otherwise unengineered food test falsely positive as engineered.
Melodi Nelson has a good sense of what that can mean. Last fall, testers in
Europe detected traces of genetically engineered corn in organic corn chips
made by her company, Prima Terra Inc. of Hudson, Wis. Some of the corn
supplied to Prima Terra from a certified organic supplier was contaminated,
it turned out, with minuscule amounts of gene-altered corn, perhaps because
a few grains of engineered pollen blew into the organic grower's fields
>from a neighboring farm. The positive test forced Prima Terra to recall
87,000 bags of chips valued at $147,000. "It broke my heart," she said.
What do consumers really want? Consumer groups cite studies indicating that
80 to 90 percent of Americans think gene-altered food ought to be marked,
and 50 to 60 percent say they would choose nonengineered food if they
could. But other studies have found that those numbers drop precipitously
when people are given additional information, such as that the FDA has
deemed the food safe and nutritious.
"In focus groups, consumers say, 'Tell us if there is something meaningful
or different or good or bad,' " said Tom Hoban, a professor of sociology at
North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who has done research on
biotech labels. "Consumers are saying, 'I have enough food anxiety, and
phew, I don't want to worry about something else unless I have to.' "
Consumers have also balked when told labeling may significantly increase
the cost of the food. Grocery groups have not made specific cost estimates
but argue that labeling would entail creating expensive separate
transportation and processing streams for engineered and nonengineered
Yet quietly, some of America's largest agricultural corporations have begun
to do just that. In June, Archer Daniels Midland Co., the giant commodities
processor and merchandiser, said it would separate U.S.-grown nonengineered
crops for export to European countries. Several large American growers have
begun using gene-testing companies to certify food as free of foreign DNA.
And as confident as American companies say they are about the safety of
gene-altered food, fear of public rejection has them on the defensive. Last
month, when Greenpeace announced that one kind of Gerber baby food
contained gene-altered ingredients, the company quickly announced it would
find a supplier that could guarantee nonengineered ingredients.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company