NEW YORK Much of the processed food in the United States contains genetically engineered ingredients. And while surveys show that many Americans would like to decide for themselves whether they want to consume altered foods, they cannot, because the federal government does not think such labeling is necessary.
So a recently issued international report that recommends mandatory labeling and testing of bioengineered foods stands in contrast to current Food and Drug Administration regulations. That report reflects a consensus of a range of thinkers in Europe and the United States.
Dr. Cutberto Garza, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University and chairman of the Food and Nutrition Board at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, who was a co-chairman of the international group, called the European Union-United States Biotechnology Consultative Forum, said it was "an honest effort to move past the people saying, 'You just don't understand,' and the other side screaming 'Frankenstein.'"
The report comes at a time when Americans have suddenly been confronted with a genetically engineered corn in Taco Bell taco shells sold in supermarkets by Kraft Foods, a division of Philip Morris Cos. The corn, called StarLink, which contains a possible human allergen, had not been approved for human consumption. The mix-up led to recalls in the United States and abroad.
"Foreign governments and consumers who had been having doubts about the safety and integrity of U.S. exports were given good reason to be concerned that food coming from the U.S. was not meeting guarantees of safety," said Dr. Rebecca Goldberg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the international committee.
Such mistakes have made some growers and processors pull back from using bioengineered foods. Other companies have gone out of their way to let consumers know they do not use such ingredients, printing, "No Genetically Engineered Ingredients" on their packages.
The United States and the European Union have been fighting for several years over genetically engineered food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that such food is so similar to conventionally grown food that it requires no labeling or pre-market testing; the European Union's regulations are extremely stringent. Tension over trade has been high, with Europe refusing to accept genetically engineered crops from the United States.
It was in an effort to improve trade relations that both sides formed a committee of 20 scientists, environmentalists, consumer activists, representatives of the biotech industry, lawyers and ethicists, half from the United States and half from Europe, to write a report on the regulation of this biotechnology.
The committee represented everyone from those who are opposed to agricultural biotechnology to those who think it will make it easier to feed the world.
"What is amazing is that an incredibly diverse group could come up with lengthy and meaningful recommendations," Dr. Goldberg said.
The committee said stricter regulations would increase public confidence. "In order not to kill this technology, we must gain consumer acceptance and we must aim for the common ground," Dr. Garza said.
Carol Tucker Foreman, a member of the committee and director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, agreed.
"The fact that people who are leaders in their fields on both sides of Atlantic were able to sit down together and make some sensible recommendations might lessen tensions on this issue," she said.
One of the leaders in the field of human gene transfer research, Dr. LeRoy Walters, a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a committee member, said the report "is a reasonable middle ground and provides an extra measure of safety for consumers."
"We need to treat biotech food more like new drugs or food additives in the early years until we have better picture of how they react in the human body," he said.
The panel's recommendations call for mandatory notification to authorities, as well as pre-market testing.
Under current regulations, notification by food producers is voluntary, and approval is not required.
Labeling is mandatory only if nutritional value or other characteristics make a product different from its conventional counterpart. For example, if peanut DNA were added to a food it would have to be labeled because peanuts are a known allergen.
While the group's recommendations call for mandatory labeling of food
to give consumers an informed choice, it does not specify how much of a
biotech component a food would have to contain to require a label.