- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Even with no scientific evidence that genetically modified (GM) food poses a risk or is unsafe to consumers, products containing altered genes should be labeled so European consumers can decide for themselves whether to consume them, says the European Union’s senior official responsible for food safety.

Geoffrey Podger, on his first visit to Washington as executive director of the European Food Safety Authority, said earlier this month that his agency had concluded that there is “no new scientific evidence” to suggest that French housewives, Italian schoolchildren or British diners face any risk from so-called “Frankenfood” made, for example, from grain genetically altered to resist disease, grow bigger or faster.

However, said Mr. Podger, “public perception is as important as reality.” He said he favors labeling food on European grocery shelves with information highlighting its GM content — that is, for example, cereal, bread or pasta made in part with GM corn, wheat, or soy.

If the food is labeled eventually, U.S. farmers and food processors say, it will cost them billions of dollars in lost sales.

Mr. Podger conceded that labeling has a negative connotation in the United States, as when alcohol and tobacco products were forced to carry warning labels, but he said, without labeling, the anti-GM environmentalists are handed a very compelling weapon: That European consumers are denied a choice.

“You don’t want to denigrate the view of the public. People want a choice,” Mr. Podger said at a forum hosted by the European Institute. “The only way out of this [problem] is labeling, whether you like it or not. It is the only pragmatic way forward.”

Karil Kochenderfer, biotechnology director for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, argued that labeling places a disproportionate and arbitrary burden on U.S. producers.

“Unsafe products should not be sold or marketed, period,” she said, adding that labeling fed the perception that “different is less safe.” She said the GM scares created by environmentalists in Europe had created less choice, and higher prices, for European consumers.

Michael Rodemeyer, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, said the rejection of GM corn in European food already costs U.S. farmers between $300 million and $400 million a year. The economic costs could reach into the billions, he added, if Europe mandates labeling of foods with GM content. Even without labeling, the costs are soaring.

The U.S. soybean industry sells about $1 billion in animal feed to Europe a year, Mr. Rodemeyer said, and though there is no law forcing the labeling of meat from animals that have consumed GM grain, McDonald’s Corp. — in a pre-emptive public relations strike — has announced that it will not make Big Macs in Europe from beef that has been fed GM grain.

Modified genes are not the only problem for European beef eaters. The European Union has outlawed the importation of U.S. and Canadian hormone-treated meat, saying it now has scientific evidence to justify a ban in place since 1989.

U.S. farmers produce 95 percent of their beef using growth-promoting hormones. Though there is no evidence GM food is harmful, however, European producers are reformulating their products and recipes to eliminate genetically modified foods from their recipes.

Mr. Podger said that European companies are experiencing a “complete loss of nerve” over GM foods but that a campaign to educate European consumers could backfire.

“If you go too far, you may stir up an opposition that wasn’t there,” he said.

Asked if the GM debate was a masquerade for trade protectionism, Mr. Rodemeyer said flatly, “No.”

“My personal feeling is that this is not an issue of protectionism. It is more: Our consumers don’t want it. We are not going to give it to them,” said Mr. Rodemeyer.

Mr. Podger agreed that the root of the problem was not protectionism but said that the GM debate had become a convenient way to protect a market, if that was the goal.

Europe has suffered several major food scares, the worst of which was “mad-cow disease” (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in medical terms), identified in 1986. Before it was over, millions of European cattle and sheep were destroyed, and BSE had killed about 125 people.

Scientists believe BSE developed when cows were given feed mixed with ground-up bone meal and other byproducts of sheep infected with scrapies.

When such cows were later butchered and people ate hamburger or steaks from the scrapie-contaminated cows, some developed Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, the human form of BSE, an always fatal illness that slowly eats away the brain.

In the United States, the federal Food and Drug Administration watches over food safety and protect consumers from BSE and other food-borne diseases.

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