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GE Labeling Debate Continues in the US

PR Newswire
June 27, 2002

How Consumers Process Information at Heart of Debate Over Labeling of
Genetically Modified Foods;
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology Policy Dialogue Explores Consumer
Education, International and Economic Issues Around Biotech Crops

CHICAGO and WASHINGTON, June 27

One of the most controversial public policy issues surrounding genetically
modified (GM) foods is whether food products containing ingredients from
GM crops should be labeled so that consumers can make informed purchasing
decisions, as consumer groups assert, or whether labels are ill-advised
because GM foods are safe and mandatory labels could mislead consumers
into believing otherwise, as the food industry argues. These and other related
issues were addressed by a group of panelists speaking today at a Pew
Initiative on Food and Biotechnology policy dialogue entitled "Labeling
Genetically Modified Foods: Communicating or Creating Confusion?"

"The labeling debate raises a number of contentious issues about how
consumers perceive information," said Michael Rodemeyer, Executive Director
of the Initiative. "Although most polls show consumers in favor of these
labels, there are questions as to how useful labels might be and whether
they may cause unnecessary fears over products that most scientists have
found to be as safe as their conventional counterparts. On the other hand,
consumers may believe that the lack of a label indicates food companies are
trying to hide something and that they have the right to choose."

Crops produced through agricultural biotechnology have been widely adopted
by farmers throughout the world over the past seven years, and have been
particularly popular with American farmers: three quarters of all GM crops
in the world now are being planted in this country. In 2001, there were
three main biotech crops planted in the U.S.: soybeans (68 percent were
genetically modified), cotton (69 percent GM) and corn (26 percent GM).
Worldwide, plantings of biotech crops in 2001 totaled 130 million acres --
up 19 percent from 2000, according to the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Because these three crops are the source of many ingredients used
extensively in processed foods, up to 70 percent of all packaged foods found
on supermarket shelves could include genetically modified ingredients,
according to some industry estimates. The Food and Drug Administration
requires labeling information for a new food variety (including GM foods)
only if it differs in a significant way -- in its composition, nutrition, or
allergenicity, for example -- from its conventional counterpart. Activists
believe that consumers have a right to know whether their food has been
genetically modified, whereas the food industry opposes mandatory labels
because the products have been reviewed for safety by the government and
they believe that a labeling regime would therefore act as an unwarranted
warning, be costly and amount to a tax on consumers (a Canadian study
estimated that mandatory labeling would cost that country's consumers $700
million to $950 million annually).

Austin Sullivan, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations at General
Mills. Inc., one of the nation's largest food companies, said,
"Manufacturers, who currently receive no benefit or marketing advantage from
bio-engineered ingredients, do not want to present their products in a way
that is negative to consumers, and especially not in ways that would cause
any significant number of consumers to avoid purchasing those products.
With no manufacturing or consumer benefit to offer and only downside risk of
adverse consumer behavior, mandatory labeling would lead manufacturers to
ask their suppliers for non-bioengineered ingredients only. The net result
of this would be to eliminate choice and retard the development of a
potentially beneficial technology."

"The argument that labeling will create confusion is simply an attempt by
supporters of biotech foods to keep consumers from knowing their foods have
been genetically engineered," said Craig Winters, Executive Director of the
Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, a political advocacy
organization whose mission is to mobilize grassroots lobbying in the United
States to get labeling on genetically engineered foods. "Consumers are
currently being used as human guinea pigs in this massive feeding
experiment. And because there are no labels on genetically engineered foods,
people do not even know they are participating in this feeding experiment."

Gregory Jaffe, Director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for
Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an advocacy and educational
organization that focuses on nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol
policy, and sound science, said: "Some consumers want mandatory labeling
because they fear GE foods are unsafe to eat. One way to address this
concern is not labeling, but mandatory approval of GE crops before they are
marketed. Under FDA's current policy, GE crops are not approved before they
are marketed. Establishing a mandatory approval process at FDA would lessen
consumer concerns about eating unsafe GE foods, greatly reducing calls for
labeling for safety reasons. If a GE food cannot be proved safe to eat, it
should not be allowed to be marketed, whether or not labeling is required.
Industry should listen to consumers and find ways to provide information
about GE ingredients in an accurate and value-free manner."

Professor Jonathan K. Frenzen, Clinical Professor of Marketing at the
University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, noted: "The risks
imposed by GMOs represent a technically complex issue that the American
public will never fully understand. GMO labeling places policy-making
authority into the hands of consumers as they rush through the aisles of a
grocery store, distracted by a myriad of purchasing decisions. In effect,
GMO labeling places a decision that deserves careful consideration into an
environment characterized by quick decisions and sometimes sloppy thinking.
Lacking an independent ability to assess the risks posed by GMOs, the
American public will be vulnerable to purely emotional appeals regarding the
risks posed by GMOs. Labeling provides a poor process for formulating
policy: It will encourage hysterical reaction and discourage thoughtful
deliberation about the risks posed by biotechnology."

The goal of the policy dialogue, one in a series hosted by the Initiative,
was to stimulate an informative discussion about the ways consumers are
likely to interpret GM labeling information and the economic implications
for food producers, manufacturers, retailers, and the biotechnology industry
itself. It was moderated by Daniel Charles, Contributing Science
Correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Lords of The Harvest:
Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food. To read more about the dialogue
or to watch the webcast of the event, go to
http://www.connectlive.com/events/pewagbiotech/

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