WASHINGTON (AP) â€” The Clinton administration today announced a series of steps intended to assure the public of the safety of biotech foods, including a formal process for reviewing gene-altered crops and standards for food makers to follow in labeling products.
The plan would require biotech companies to notify the Food and Drug Administration at least four months in advance of releasing new genetically engineered ingredients for food and animal feed and to provide the agency with their research data.
Biotech companies now voluntarily consult with the FDA before going to market, but the new plan would codify the practice. Once the FDA reviews a new food or animal feed, the agency's conclusions and product safety data would be posted on its Web site for consumers to read.
The agency also will set standards for food processors who want to label products made with or without the use of bioengineered ingredients. The guidelines will ensure that such labels are ``truthful and informative,'' the agency said.
``FDA's scientific review continues to show that all bioengineered foods sold here in the United States today are as safe as their non-bioengineered counterparts,'' Commissioner Jane Henney said today. ``We believe our initiatives will provide the public with continued confidence in the safety of these foods.''
The FDA will seek comments from the public before the new rules take effect.
Besides the changes FDA is making, the Agriculture Department will begin certifying new scientific tests designed to detect the presence of biotech ingredients in food. The tests would ensure that food labeled biotech-free meets uniform standards.
Also, the administration will conduct a six-month review of its environmental regulations dealing with generically engineered crops.
The food industry applauded the plan, but it falls short of what many critics of the biotech industry have wanted, including requirements for additional testing of crops and mandatory labeling for all products containing genetically engineered products. Administration officials say that is unnecessary, and the food industry has argued that it would unfairly stigmatize biotech food.
``We think this is a good step to make sure that this process is open and transparent,'' said Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Reaction from biotech critics was mixed. ``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 Environmental Defense.
Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute, said the plan showed ``good intentions'' but that it is yet to be seen whether the new rules FDA will propose will require sufficient review of new ingredients.
Crops have been engineered to stay fresher longer or to resist pests and herbicides. The National Academy of Sciences concluded recently that the biotech food now on the market is safe, but critics say there isn't enough proof, and some U.S. food processing companies and fast-food companies have been turning away from the crops.
FDA bowed to public concern and held a series of hearings on crop biotechnology last year.
Meanwhile, 13 governors are joining the biotechnology industry in an effort to persuade the public of the benefits of genetically engineered crops and the safety of the food that is made from them.
``It makes sense to say that this isn't just the big, bad chemical companies trying to engineer something to jam down your throats,'' North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer said Tuesday.
The governors hope to coordinate their message with the biotechnology companies, who last month launched a $50 million advertising campaign to counter criticism of the industry, said Schafer, a Republican who is co-chairing the Governors Biotechnology Partnership with Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.
``I don't think they (the governors) are doing their farmers or their consumers any benefit by promoting a technology that hasn't proven to be safe,'' said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for Greenpeace, an environmental group that has led the opposition to biotech food. ``I don't think it's going to make much difference to our side.''
Other governors in the group include Democrats Mel Carnahan of Missouri and Tom Carper of Delaware, whose states are home to two leading biotech companies, Monsanto and DuPont.
The other governors in the coalition are Republicans Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, John Engler of Michigan, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Kenny Guinn of Nevada, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and George Ryan of Illinois, and Democrats Frank O'Bannon of Indiana, Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Gary Locke of Washington.
On the Net: Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov