Biotech food escapes mandatory labeling
Biotech food escapes mandatory
By Bob Montgomery ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER
Greenville News, Thursday, May 4, 2000
Consumers like Gwendolyn Stoddard of Simpsonville say they don't want
terms such as "genetically altered" and
"biotechnically engineered" associated with the produce
"I'm from the country and I don't fool with tampered food
because it could contaminate the body," said Stoddard, a
39-year-old Hardee's restaurant cook.
What Stoddard doesn't realize is that genetically engineered fruits
and vegetables are already in the produce sections at local markets
and grocery stores.
Critics of the industry say there isn't enough known about possible
allergic reactions to the food or potential harm to the environment.
They've been demanding mandatory labeling of the products and tougher
testing standards for biotech plants and animals.
The Clinton administration on Wednesday, convinced that biotechnology
is safe, declined to require food labels disclosing genetically
engineered ingredients and decided to let the biotech industry
continue its practice of voluntary compliance by not marketing any
products that are significantly altered.
Scientists since 1981 have been altering genes in such vegetables as
corn, tomatoes, potatoes and squash to make them bigger, juicier and
more resistant to disease.
With bioengineering, scientists draw juice samples from fruit and
vegetables and examine the thousands of different genes. They may
take one or two genes and inject them into the produce that they want
to improve. That genetically altered piece then produces seeds with
the altered makeup, which can then be mass- produced.
Proponents say the technology is no different than cross-breeding
broccoli and cauliflower to make broccoflower, and that no one has
ever gotten sick from bioengineered vegetables. They also say it cuts
down on the amount of pesticides sprayed by 1 million pounds alone in
1999, thus helping the environment, according to C.S. Prakash, a
scientist studying gene altering at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute.
"The scientific evidence does not show that these products are
any different from a health and safety standpoint," said Joe
Levitt, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for
Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Local supermarkets carry genetically altered food, and the customers
don't mind or notice any difference, according to Joyce
Smart-Buchanan, spokeswoman for the Bi-Lo supermarket chain.
"In any grocery store, we'll have food that's been modified. A
tangerine is an altered orange," Smart-Buchanan said.
She added, "It's in such common use, not only at Bi-Lo, but
every grocer will have some developed, bigger tomatoes and less
disease- prone potatoes."
Gregory Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a
Washington-based think tank, said he believes the voluntary
compliance with FDA guidelines is sufficient and that labels aren't
"The public doesn't really understand how the process
works," he said. "It takes five to eight years to get a
product from a laboratory to the marketplace. Practically every crop
that plant farmers grow have been genetically modified in one way or
Critics said the government's proposal falls short. "This plan
is like some fat-free foods it's not very good, and there isn't much
substance," said Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist for
"It's almost like playing God," said David Bradshaw,
professor of horticulture at Clemson University. "We are
changing nature, and we don't know the full repercussions and where
that can lead."
Some local residents also remain skeptical of genetically altered
foods, fearing it may cause changes in their bodies.
"I've noticed it, but I won't try it," said Lonnie Teasley,
a 59-year-old grounds and maintenance worker for the city of
Greenville. "I don't know what it can cause. Maybe if I knew
more, I'd try it."
Peggy Lemaux of the University of California at Berkeley said
consumers can rest assured they won't be genetically changed when
eating genetically altered food.
"We've been eating genes and DNA from foods for a long time, and
we don't look more like plants," she said. "We don't see
humans taking on plant characteristics."
Proponents of bioengineering believe that as people know more about
the process, they'll be more at ease. Genetic engineering seems to be
a mystery to most folks, but they needn't worry, according to
"Scientifically, we have been mixing and matching through
cross-breeding for the past 100 years," Prakash said. "This
technology gives us more precision to be more productive."
Local produce growers said there hasn't been a demand for
bioengineered produce, although many customers want organically grown
food that is free of pesticides and herbicides.
"It's so new, I know there's a concern," said Steve Francis
of Francis Produce on White Horse Road in Greenville. "I need to
know more about it."
In addition to soybeans, corn, potatoes and tomatoes, research is
being done on peaches, a big crop in South Carolina.
Prakash said researchers are looking for genes in other crops that
are resistant to bacterial and fungal peach disease.
Scientists from all over the world are coming to the United States to
see how they can apply the technology to grow food with more protein,
such as rice and sweet potatoes.
Even vaccines can be injected into fruit and distributed in
developing countries, according to Vance Baird, genetic engineering
professor at Clemson University. Bob Montgomery can be reached at