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CU labels FDA’s new policy for genetically engineered foods “disappointing”

May 3, 2000
Jean Halloran (914) 378-2457


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, today expressed disappointment that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no plans to require labeling of foods derived through the use of biotechnology.
“The FDA’s new policy falls short of what consumers need,” said Mark Silbergeld, co-director of CU’s Washington, DC office. “FDA’s proposal to develop guidelines for voluntary labeling will not help most consumers who want to know if their food is genetically engineered. FDA’s proposals on safety could be an improvement, but the devil will be in the details. We will be monitoring it closely to see how effective it is in helping consumers.”
FDA issued a press release today announcing the direction it plans to take in refining its regulatory approach to genetically engineered foods, or GE foods (the release is located online at www.fda.gov). The initiative comes in the wake of meetings held by FDA last year to gather opinions from the food industry and the general public. Hundreds testified, and some 30,000 people sent written comments to the agency.
“The FDA fails to require mandatory labeling for all genetically engineered food products even though polls show that 70-90 percent of Americans want it,” said Silbergeld. “Therefore, most foods on the supermarket shelf are unlikely to contain label information about GE content, whether they are GE or GE free. Consumers will be given little of the information they say they want when they do the family food shopping.” He explained that because the law is unclear as to who will be liable if a food is mislabeled “GE Free” if accidentally contaminated with GE product, the industry will be very reluctant to make that label claim. Furthermore, GE foods are not likely to be voluntarily labeled, because companies believe such labels will drive consumers away.
The FDA would also require biotech companies to notify the FDA four months in advance of releasing new genetically engineered crops and provide the agency with “specific information” on safety. This requirement would apply to imported foods as well as foods grown domestically. Company data on a product will be made available to the public on the FDA web site after FDA completes its review.
“The proposed mandatory safety consultation is potentially a step forward,” said Jean Halloran, director of CU’s Consumer Policy Institute. “However,” she warned, “the consumer will only benefit if the FDA implements this effectively. What tests must be done, how FDA reviews the data and how the government assures that imported foods meet the new requirements, all remain to be determined.”
Halloran added that CU applauds the agency’s decision to make company data available to the public. However she criticized the FDA for being secretive about how it is handling genetically modified animal foods, such as salmon modified to enhance growth hormone production. “FDA should conduct a full and thorough public review of its policies on engineered animals, similar to the one it completed on engineered plants,” Halloran states.
For more information on genetically engineered foods, go to CU’s web site at: http://www.consumersunion.org/food.html

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, is an independent, nonprofit testing and information-gathering organization, serving only the consumer. We are a comprehensive source of unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health, nutrition, and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public, and protect consumers. Consumers Union is online at www.consumersunion.org