If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Why are consumer groups "breeding distrust" of biotech foods?


This week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will release its revised regulations for foods produced using biotechnology. The new regulations are expected to be a bit more onerous but not nearly enough to satisfy some special interests in Washington. One such special interest 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, at a press conference at the National Press Club last week. The CFA is a Washington, D.C. lobbying group under whose umbrella dwells some 250 organizations (including Consumers Union and the American Association of Retired Persons), all of which claim an interest in protecting consumers. At the press conference were CFA co-director Mark Silbergeld, Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the CFA's Food Policy Institute, and University of Texas Law professor Thomas McGarity, co-author of the report.

So what is the CFA demanding that U.S. regulatory agencies do to control and to monitor the menace of genetically enhanced crop plants? "These products need to be subjected to a mandatory pre-market approval process," asserted Foreman. The CFA reports recommends that U.S. biotech regulations be modeled on those developed by the European Union and Brazil–not generally considered hot-beds for technological innovation and economic growth. "Both the EU and Brazil have adopted process-oriented regulatory programs aimed at all GM [genetically modified] organisms," notes the report. "The laws in the EU and Brazil broadly encompass all GM foods because they include all GM organisms within their scope."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration specifically rejected the EU and Brazilian models in 1992 and declared that foods should not be regulated on the basis of the process by which they were created. "The regulatory status of a food, irrespective of the method by which it is developed, is dependent upon objective characteristics of the food and the intended use of the food," concluded the FDA. In other words, the FDA made the sensible call that determining whether a food is safe or not depends on what's in it, not how it's made. The FDA also noted that the precision of biotechnology made it much easier in general for scientists to tell what new substances are in a food than conventional breeding does. The agency correctly stated that "most, if not all, cultivated food crops have been genetically modified."

In 1992, the FDA 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, these substances are regarded as "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, which means the agency won't regulate them any more stringently than it does conventionally produced foods. However, greater regulatory oversight would apply 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." In other words, if a genetically modified food is "substantially equivalent" to other foods already being eaten by consumers, then it doesn't merit any more regulatory scrutiny that conventionally produced foods.

"So long has you don't insert a gene for a known allergen or snake venom, then it's probably substantially equivalent," is the way Thomas McGarity characterized the FDA's position at the CFA press conference. But despite McGarity's pointed rhetoric, the FDA is taking exactly the right position scientifically: If a non-allergenic corn protein shows up in a tomato, so what? People have been eating corn and tomatoes for centuries.

And so far the U.S. regulatory system has worked well. Every scientific body that has ever evaluated genetically modified foods has found them safe. The latest of these is the American Medical Association, which represents nearly 300,000 doctors. In December, the AMA adopted a report from its science and technology committee that concluded that genetically modified foods are safe for people to eat and don't harm the natural environment. Indeed, as a medical officer with the FDA who was an observer at the AMA meeting noted, there is no known case in which a genetically altered food crop that has been approved for sale has caused harm to any person.

Scientific bodies consistently reject proposals like the CFA's that call for singling out genetically enhanced crops for special regulatory oversight. In July, seven national scientific academies, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, issued a consensus report called Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture. The document concluded that "[d]ecisions regarding safety should be based on the nature of the product, rather than on the method by which it was modified." The report further noted that "over 30 million hectares of transgenic crops have been grown and no human health problems associated specifically with the ingestion of transgenic crops or their products have been identified."

The CFA also demands that the FDA "require manufacturers and importers of all foods containing more than a prescribed percentage of material from GM plants to place appropriate labels on or near such foods. The CFA claims that this will increase consumer choice. This is disingenuous. The CFA must clearly know that anti-biotech activists are counting on consumers to mistake any labels on biotech foods as warning labels which would induce them to avoid those foods. Talk about "breeding distrust."

The FDA has repeatedly ruled that special labeling for genetically engineered foods as a class is not required solely because of the demands of some consumers or because of the process used to develop these foods. Why? Because the food labels required by the FDA typically warn consumers of risks based on scientific analyses or provide certain specified nutritional information, neither of which applies to biotech foods. The chair of the AMA's science and technology committee, Dr. Alvin Head, supports the FDA's position on labeling, noting that as of December 2000, "There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods." Besides, if some consumers, misled by anti-biotech activist campaigns, really want to avoid genetically modified foods, they can buy organic foods certified by Department of Agriculture regulations issued this past December. Why should the rest of us pay the costs of accommodating their scientifically baseless fears by segregating biotech from conventional foods?

Curiously, McGarity, who admitted during the question and answer period that eating genetically modified foods "hasn't adversely affected me as far as I know," pleaded 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 health or the environment. For bioluddites, the great beauty of invoking a "precautionary approach" is that even in the absence of scientific evidence, regulation can be based on theoretical harms dreamed up by the most risk averse elements of society. In other words, regulate first, ask questions later.

Sadly, the CFA report was bankrolled by the Rockefeller Foundation. By financing the CFA's campaign to regulate biotech, the Rockefeller Foundation is undercutting its support of biotech research to help the poor in the developing world. Rockefeller money has, for instance, helped the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology produce rice enriched with provitamin A, or so-called "golden rice." (See "Like Gold on Rice.") This biotech grain could help alleviate vitamin A deficiency in some 2 billion people around the globe. If the CFA's regulatory proposals were adopted, such worthy projects would certainly take longer to reach those in need without any appreciable increase in safety or environmental protection.

The CFA co-director Silbergeld asserted at the close of the press conference that the report "is a landmark that deserves everybody's careful attention." In fact, Breeding DIstrust really marks the nadir of a once proud consumer protection movement that now cares more about the regulatory niceties of administrative law than it does about scientific evidence and real consumer interests.