A new era of responsibility

July 15, 2003
Without regulation and labeling, any Tom, Dick or Harry with a test tube can slip a mutated product into the food system.

Perhaps the most befuddling contrast between mission and practice in recent years is the response by the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) to the European Parliament's new measures on biotechnology. The NFPA, the "food safety people," have come out against the measure calling for labeling and traceability of all genetically modified products sold in the EU.

"These new requirements will be burdensome for food companies, and are likely to be seen as ,'warning labels' by European consumers," says Jeffrey Barach, NFPA's vice president of special projects. "In essence, such labeling requirements ensure that these products are unlikely to enter the European market, thereby actually denying consumer access to the products of agricultural biotechnology."

Against labeling and traceability? Burdensome?

Why would products whose genomes have been altered not be subject to the same guidelines as a Snicker's Bar or Pilgrims Pride turkey? Genetic modification is still in its infancy and is no small undertaking. Genes of salmon are placed in tomatoes; soybeans have genomic parallels to herbicides. Already we have seen recalls on GM corn products. Without regulation and labeling, any Tom, Dick or Harry with a test tube can slip a mutated product into the food system and potentially cause harm to consumers.

With all due respect, NFPA's sounds like a mouthpiece for business rather than safety. Scientists around the world are still trying to determine how to keep some biotech bacteria from propagating, others are investigating the role of biotech on allergens, and still others are seeking ways to remove the fishy taste from seafood. It all smacks of H.G. Wells. While biotech has created some strong arguments for its use in certain sectors, we shouldn't be so arrogant as to assume we have a complete handle on our manipulations of nature.

"The legislation also places cumbersome and expensive requirements on growers, processors, and importers of biotech foods to trace the source of the products or ingredients they use," says Barach. Is allergen labeling too cumbersome as well? These are factors that ensure consumers' right to know and their right to choose what they ingest or feed their children. It is the burden of food companies and growers to accurately represent the contents of products they put on shelves. Tough tuna if they have to record what salmon genome was used on what tomato.

As we enter the new era of biotechnology, it becomes more important to ensure that consumers are protected and that producers accountable.

Frankly, the EU's guidelines are more lenient than many requested. The .09 threshold for reporting GM ingredients offers more room than the .05 the EU first proposed and is on a different plane altogether from the zero tolerance many consumer groups have called for.

People have a right to know if they are eating peanuts, so why wouldn't they have a right to know their corn chip is made from Starlink?

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