In January, the Food and Drug Administration released its revised regulations for foods produced using biotechnology. The new regs were a bit more onerous than what had come before, but not nearly enough to satisfy some pressure groups in Washington. One such group, the Consumer Federation of America, released a new 258-page report, Breeding Distrust: An Assessment and Recommendations for Improving the Regulation of Plant Derived Genetically Modified Foods. The report calls for the U.S. to model its biotech regulations on those developed by the European Union and Brazil -- not generally considered hotbeds for technological innovation.
"Both the EU and Brazil have adopted process-oriented regulatory programs aimed at all GM [genetically modified] organisms," the report notes. "The laws in the EU and Brazil broadly encompass all GM foods because they include all GM organisms within their scope."
The FDA specifically rejected the EU and Brazilian models in 1992, declaring that whether a food is safe depends on what's in it, not how it's made. It further declared that "in most cases, the substances expected to become components of food as a result of genetic modification of a plant will be the same as or substantially similar to substances commonly found in food, such as proteins, fats, oils and carbohydrates." Decoding the regulation-speak, this means the agency won't regulate those substances any more stringently than it does conventionally produced foods. It would require more regulatory oversight if genetic modification produced "a protein that differs significantly in structure and function, or to modify a carbohydrate, or fat or oil, such that it differs significantly in composition from such substances currently found in the food."
University of Texas Law professor Thomas McGarity, co-author of the CFA report, doesn't think too much of this standard, characterizing the FDA's position as, "So long as you don't insert a gene for a known allergen or snake venom, then it's probably substantially equivalent." But the FDA's current position is simply common sense. If a non-allergenic corn protein shows up in a tomato, so what? People have been eating corn and tomatoes for centuries.
The current system seems to work, too. There is no known case in which a genetically altered food crop that has been approved for sale has caused harm to any person. McGarity, who admits that eating genetically modified foods "hasn't adversely affected me as far as I know," pleads that "we are only urging that the U.S. join the rest of the world in adopting a more precautionary approach." This is a near-open admission that McGarity and the CFA cannot cite any credible scientific evidence that biotech crops have caused harm to human or environmental health.