5 August 2002
NEW TESTING POLICY PROPOSED FOR ALTERED CROPS
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Los Angeles Times August 3, 2002
Agriculture: Biotech industry applauds the White House plan, but food safety advocates and environmentalists say it may not go far enough.
WASHINGTON: The White House on Friday proposed new tests of genetically altered plants while the crops are still being field tested, so that the government will know whether the plants present a risk if they end up in the food supply by mistake. The new policy would permit small amounts of genetically modified crops to mingle with the food supply--even before they pass the elaborate food safety regulatory hurdles. The biotechnology industry applauded the White House announcement, but environmentalists and food safety advocates expressed concerns that the new policy failed to go far enough to protect the public because the early tests would be voluntary and not exhaustive. The proposal represents an effort by the Bush administration to address possible health risks posed by genetically engineered plant varieties without hampering the industry's progress. Genetic engineering has dramatically changed the way new plant varieties are developed. Five years after the first biotechnology-derived crops were commercialized in 1996, about 88 million acres were planted with such crops in the United States. Corn, soybeans and cotton represent the majority of the genetically altered plants now on the market. But biotech companies are experimenting with many other foods, including a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The primary goal of the developers is to create crops that either repel insects or can withstand herbicides, so the crops are not damaged when the herbicides are applied to kill weeds. The tests, which would be done only at the request of developers, would assess any potential for allergic or toxic reactions from any new proteins in bioengineered crops. "We're proposing a set of science-based regulatory oversight tools which will provide the public with assurance that public health and environmental concerns are being addressed," said Cliff Gabriel, deputy associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Environmentalists and food-safety advocates have been concerned for years that genetically altered crops would contaminate the food supply. The food industry, meanwhile, has been worried that detection of unapproved, biotechnology-derived crops in foods could trigger huge recalls and heavy costs, whether or not the public faced any risks. These fears are more than theoretical. In 2000, StarLink, a type of genetically modified corn approved only for livestock consumption, was detected in hundreds of popular human food products, including taco shells. Massive recalls were ordered. Last year, genetically modified plants showed up in Canadian canola seed. Monsanto Co., fearing a negative effect on exports to Japan, where the trait had not yet been approved, launched a large recall. These examples show that inadvertent blending of biotech crops with the food supply can happen, government officials said. The blending can happen when pollen blows from the test plant to other crops and when the same machinery is used with both crops. "If there are plants growing in the field, there is always the possibility of pollen flows and seeds being mixed, and products that have not gotten through all the regulatory steps could inadvertently become components of food," said James Maryanski, the FDA's biotechnology coordinator. "Our goal at FDA is to make sure the food supply is safe."
Maryanski said the FDA believes that the preliminary test for allergens or toxicity would catch any possible public health risks, even if the biotech plants have not passed the full regulatory regime. "These materials will be present at very low levels of food," he said. "We believe they will not rise to the level that they will present a public health problem."
But environmental and food safety advocates were not convinced. "I fear that if the FDA approach remains voluntary it will end up protecting industry more than people and the environment," said Jane Rissler, a plant pathologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Industry will be able to go to FDA to get an OK if it fears it has not contained a new protein, so it won't be liable for introducing a protein into the food supply."
Joseph Mendelson, legal advisor for the Center for Food Safety, said the proposal would help the biotech industry with its difficult battle to improve the public's view of its products--without ensuring the public a thorough review. But representatives of the biotech industry said they believed the rules would help assure the public, making it easier for companies to promote their products. "We think the policy is a positive step toward ensuring there is a framework for allowing the continued development and testing of biotech traits in the field," added Bryan Hurley, spokesman for St. Louis-based Monsanto, a leading company in the field.
Earlier Safety Reviews Proposed for Gene-Altered Crops
By ANDREW POLLACK
New York Times, August 2, 2002
Worried that unapproved genetically modified crops will leak into the food supply, the White House is proposing new safety reviews to better protect consumers and to avoid the need for disruptive recalls.
The proposed new rules, which are being published today in the Federal Register, are based on the premise that there are so many field trials of experimental genetically engineered crops that some of the crops will almost inevitably find their way into food, either by cross-pollination or because some of the modified seeds become mixed with other seeds.
Because the crops that are being tested have not been approved for commercial growing or human consumption, even low levels of contamination could prompt health concerns or food recalls.
So the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is suggesting that the crops undergo a preliminary safety assessment by the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency before field trials grow so large that such contamination would be likely. The assessment, which would not be required, would look at whether the new protein introduced into the crop by gene splicing was toxic or would cause allergies.
If the crop was deemed not to be harmful, then low levels that inadvertently leaked into the food supply would not be cause for alarm or recalls. The government also hopes that importers of American crops or food would not reject shipments because of a low-level presence of unapproved genetically modified crops. The proposal does not spell out how much contamination might be permissible.
Field trials are now subject to the approval of the Agriculture Department, which looks mainly at environmental effects. The F.D.A. or the E.P.A. look at the health aspects but usually not until the crop moves closer to commercialization. Those assessments would still be made.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents biotechnology crop developers, welcomed the new proposals. "For consumers, this enhancement adds yet another layer of assurance to the existing regulatory review of agricultural crops," it said in a statement.
But Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington group opposed to genetically engineered foods, said the proposal, while a step in the right direction, was "too little too late."
"They are recognizing that there is a likely or future problem with contamination of conventional crops with genetically engineered varieties creating potential health risks," he said. But, he added, the proposed new policy does not address the trials that are already under way, so his group will seek a moratorium on field trials until the new regulations are in place.
He also said his group wanted to make sure the regulations were "not simply a disguise to bail out companies" if their experimental crops end up in food.
Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said food companies would have preferred the safety assessment be made mandatory to send a stronger signal to consumers.
The biotechnology and food industries have already been stung by some incidents of contamination. Most notable was the case when genetically modified StarLink corn, which had been approved only for animal feed, was found in taco shells and other foods, causing large recalls and severely hurting American corn exports.
In April, Monsanto and Aventis CropScience, two developers of genetically modified crops, said some genetically modified canola seeds not approved in the United States might have found their way into farmers' fields.
The proposed new policies would go through a period of public comment and might take months to become effective.