WASHINGTON — Food companies reeling from recalls of biotech corn products say the government shouldn’t let genetically engineered crops go to market unless there are tests to tell those crops apart from conventional varieties.
Last fall, the biotech industry was embarrassed when a type of genetically engineered corn that wasn’t approved for human consumption was found in taco shells.
At the time, a sophisticated test for detecting a special protein in the corn hadn’t been developed.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons, that’s the bottom line,” Lisa Katic, director of scientific and nutrition policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said Friday.
“We need to know what’s in our products.”
Officials with biotech companies say that testing methods will be made available to the government.
Biotech soy and corn are found in foods throughout U.S. supermarkets because biotech and conventional crops are routinely mixed together.
In a letter sent to the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday, the grocery manufacturers say they must be able to tell whether ingredients include gene-altered crops.
Many overseas buyers don’t want foods made from biotech crops, and the European Union and Japan require such foods to be labeled.
The agency is considering tightening up its approval process for biotech crops in response to consumer and food industry concerns.
The agency has proposed a mandatory review process for new biotech products that will include posting scientific data on the Internet. FDA also proposed voluntary labeling guidelines for foods that claim either to be nonbiotech or to have special biotech ingredients.
Genetic engineering in agriculture involves splicing a gene from one organism, such as a bacterium, into a plant or animal to confer certain traits, such as herbicide or insect resistance in plants.
Monsanto Co. has created a herbicide-resistant wheat that may be ready as early as 2003. Biotech varieties of fruit, vegetables, fish and livestock are in various stages of development.
“We believe that detection methods for biotech-derived food and feed that are traded globally should be available to regulatory agencies,” said Loren Wassell, a spokesman for Monsanto.
The biotech StarLink corn that spawned the food recalls has since been removed from the market, and the Environmental Protection Agency has said it will not approve another biotech crop unless it is allowed for both animal feed and human use.
StarLink was not approved for food because of unanswered questions about its potential to cause allergic reactions. It was supposed to be kept separate from food-grade corn, but many farmers weren’t informed about the restrictions, or else ignored them. StarLink has subsequently been found in both grain and seed supplies.
Critics of biotech food say that while diagnostic tests are needed, FDA also should require new biotech crops to go through the more rigorous and lengthy approval process required of food additives.
The grocery manufacturers, like the biotech companies, oppose that idea.
“It sounds like GMA has the last half of the piece,” said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, an anti-biotech advocacy group.
On the Net: FDA: http://www.fda.gov