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British Medical Association Warns of Health Hazards of GE Foods
British Report: Label Gene-Modified Food
Call by U.K. Doctors Group Adds to Trade Tensions With U.S., Brings
Strong Reaction on Hill
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 1999; Page A02

Britain's premier medical association yesterday joined the European
fracas over genetically engineered foods by saying that foods harboring
new genes should be labeled as such so consumers can choose to avoid
them until they're proven safe.

In a strongly worded report that immediately increased trade tensions
with the United States, the British Medical Association also called for
gene-altered crops to be processed separately from conventional crops,
rather than mixed together as is done today in the United States, so
that any health effects that may eventually turn up will be traceable to
the products that caused them.

If growers in the United States or other countries continue to refuse to
segregate gene-modified products, the association concluded, then
Britain should consider banning imports of those foods.

The recommendations prompted a quick negative reaction on Capitol Hill,
where congressional leaders have been growing increasingly irritated
with Europe's resistance to agricultural biotechnology, a lucrative
field dominated by the United States.

Just four days ago a bipartisan group of 36 senators sent a letter to
President Clinton urging him to stand up for American agricultural
biotechnology at the World Trade Organization and other international
forums, including the upcoming G8 summit, to avoid "a looming trade
conflict" with Europe.

Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wrote
and circulated the letter, fumed yesterday when he learned of the
British report.

"It is characteristic of the European Union to hide behind studies such
as this in order to maintain its protectionist trade policies," said
Ashcroft, whose home state houses Monsanto Co., the global leader in
agricultural biotechnology.

"Studies such as this . . . demonstrate with absolute clarity why
progress must begin with action by the president to address biotech
trade at the head-of-state level at the upcoming G8 summit," Ashcroft
said.

The 119,000-member British Medical Association represents more than 80
percent of Britain's doctors. It has weighed in before on the issue of
genetically engineered crops and foods, but yesterday's report--based on
an analysis of current scientific knowledge--contains the strongest
warnings yet as to what remains unknown about their environmental and
health effects.

The crops contain genes from bacteria and other organisms to make them
resistant to weed-killing chemicals and insects. They are being grown on
millions of acres in the United States, where regulatory agencies have
deemed them safe, but they remain heavily restricted in Europe, where
public acceptance has been low.

Concerns about genetically engineered corn have already halted virtually
all corn exports from the United States to Europe, costing U.S. farmers
about $200 million a year. Exports of American engineered soy worth
additional hundreds of millions of dollars are so far being accepted by
Europe.

The British report does not assert that engineered foods are dangerous.
But it counsels that without proof of safety, the wise course is to
proceed more slowly. For example, the new report says, no one knows yet
whether the antibiotic resistance genes used to create engineered crops
might get passed to bacteria in people's internal organs, leading to the
growth of drug-resistant pathogens. Just in case, the group calls upon
companies to abandon use of those genes.

That conservative approach contrasts sharply with the Food and Drug
Administration's, which has allowed companies to use such genes after a
review of the scientific literature concluded that it was
unlikely--albeit not impossible--for such problematic gene transfers to
occur.

The FDA and other U.S. agencies have made it their policy not to
regulate engineered crops or foods differently than conventionally bred
products. "We do not have any information that the use of recombinant
DNA techniques creates a class of products different in quality or
safety," said Jim Maryanski, the FDA's biotechnology coordinator.

Jay Byrne, a spokesman for Monsanto, said labeling of engineered foods
only makes sense if it's "science-based and provides meaningful
information." He said segregation of engineered products from harvest to
the table would create "an arbitrary two-tier system that would only
serve to increase food costs for consumers."

C Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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