- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

TORONTO (AP) The Bush administration opposes the labeling of genetically engineered food, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson told the world's premier biotechnology industry gathering.
"Mandatory labeling will only frighten consumers," he said during a breakfast speech yesterday at the BIO 2002 conference. "Labeling implies that biotechnology products are unsafe."
Labeling food produced through genetic engineering is a sensitive subject for the U.S. biotechnology industry, at home and abroad. Domestically, the industry worries that labels would reduce consumer demand.
Abroad, however, 19 countries require labeling and the European Union has since 1998 banned the sale of any new engineered products. The ban has angered U.S. exporters and hampered the growth of European agricultural biotech firms. The EU is expected to consider lifting the ban later this year, but may require labeling.
Some 70 percent of the world's biotech food is grown in the United States. Soy and corn genetically engineered to be pest- or herbicide-resistant are used in a wide variety of foods and drinks. The Food and Drug Administration says the ingredients are just as safe as those produced by conventional methods.
U.S. officials have said the labeling could cost U.S. companies $4 billion a year.
Mr. Thompson said biotechnology can lead to safer foods that are better for the environment because of improved crop yields, among other benefits.
Critics say that not enough testing has been done to determine the long-term health effects of splicing the genes of two species together to create food.
"The science is so immature, we don't know what we are doing," said Canadian genetics professor David Suzuki at an anti-biotech rally in a Toronto park on Sunday. "If you took Bono out of U2 and stuck him in the Toronto Symphony and said make music, noise would come out but you have no way of knowing what it would sound like."
Mr. Thompson yesterday also called on drug makers to lower their costs and promised to overhaul the approval process of the FDA.
"We are creating an FDA where risk management is the rule and not the exception," he said. "You will not recognize the FDA a year from now."
He said the FDA currently treats all applications the same, whether it's for cosmetics or lifesaving drugs.
While the FDA is streamlining its application process, Mr. Thompson called on drug makers to lower the cost of their products.
"They're looked at as part of the problem instead of part of the solution," he said at a news conference.
Some drugs sold in the United States sell for 40 percent less in other countries, including Canada, Mr. Thompson noted.
If drug companies don't heed the call to lower their prices, public and regulatory pressure could ultimately lead to price controls, he said.
Mr. Thompson also said that the impact on his department from President Bush's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security has not yet been detailed. Mr. Bush proposed to move 300 workers, mostly involved with bioterrorism research, and $4 billion from Mr. Thompson's agency to the new department.
Mr. Thompson also said a permanent FDA chief could be nominated "within a few weeks." The post has been vacant since Mr. Bush's inauguration.

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