Concerns over genetically modified foods have failed to make much impact in the United States, where consumers and the US media are less fired up about the issue than in Europe, activists say.

Dr Michael Hansen, a biologist with the major New York-based Consumers Union, says the media doesn’t talk about GM issues and there is more apathy in the US.

“When the public is asked in the survey, a high percentage wants food labels,” he said.

“They just don’t realise the extent to which certain food such as corn or soybean are genetically engineered, and often they have not heard of any of these food safety concerns.”

On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy banned the only genetically modified crop grown in France, the Mon 810 maize produced by the US agriculture giant Monsanto.

“It simply means that with the principle of precaution at stake, I am making a major political decision to carry our country to the forefront of the debate on the environment,” he said.

The US Consumers Union is calling for mandatory safety checks before any GM food is able to be sold, citing research by the National Academy of Sciences indicating that toxic or allergenic substances may be introduced through genetic engineering and that it may be difficult to “predict and assess unintended adverse effects on human health.”

GM foods have also sparked a US trade dispute with the European Union, after the World Trade Organisation ruled that an EU moratorium on the authorisation of GM products between 1999 and 2004 broke world trade rules.

On Friday the European Commission failed to meet the WTO deadline to comply with the September 2006 ruling and normalise trade.

But European concerns have largely gone unnoticed in the US, except by the biotech industry body, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, which denounced France’s decision as unnecessary and not based on scientific fact.

US Govt ‘ignoring concerns’

Dr Hansen says the US Government must bear the blame for American apathy for simply failing to address the issue.

Ronnie Cummins is the head of the Organic Consumers Association, a private group of organic food producers.

“The Government has ignored public opinions polls for over 10 years saying that the public want labelling,” he said.

“Most people don’t know the food they are eating has at least trace levels of genetic [modification], in soy and corn.”

He says US supermarket tests have revealed that at least 70 per cent of all foodstuffs contain GM products.

Dr Hansen says if there was compulsory labelling, fewer GM components would end up in the products on the shelves.

“Because they have blocked any kind of labelling, it’s widespread out there in the US,” he said.

Cloning decision

But the same consumer apathy does not apply to meat and dairy products from cloned animals.

A survey carried out two years ago by the International Food Council found that 65 per cent of Americans were opposed to eating such products – a level of concern matched in Europe.

Despite the opposition though, on Tuesday the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved meat and milk from cloned animals, clearing the way for them one day to appear on store shelves.

“Meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals,” FDA official Randall Lutter said.

He added his agency would not require food made from cloned animals or their offspring to be specially labelled, but producers could apply for the right to label their foods “clone-free”.

The ruling had been delayed by strong resistance from food safety and animal rights groups, as well as the US dairy industry, which fears its image and exports will be damaged.