(WASHINGTON) - Companies that want to label food as free of genetically engineered ingredients will have to wait while the government decides how to make sure it's true.
The food would have to be tested by the companies and checked periodically by federal inspectors to make sure it doesn't contain biotech products, said Lester Crawford, deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
``If it's on the label, it has to be true, and it's up to us to be sure that it is,'' Crawford told the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.
FDA proposed labeling rules for non-biotech foods in January 2001, during the final days of the Clinton administration. But Crawford, an appointee of the Bush administration, said it could be months or even years before the rules are made final.
Genetically engineered soy and corn are used in a wide variety of foods and drinks. FDA says the ingredients are just as safe as those produced by conventional methods.
Critics of biotechnology pushed the Clinton administration to require foods with gene-altered ingredients to be labeled as such, but FDA refused. Instead, it proposed the labeling rules for foods that are biotech-free.
The agency would likely allow genetically modified ingredients to make up no more than about 1 percent of officially biotech-free foods. FDA plans to check a portion to make sure foods meet the standard, but hasn't decided how much testing is needed for the results to be statistically valid, Crawford said.
FDA has suggested several possible labels, including ``We do not use ingredients that were produced using biotechnology'' and ``This oil is made from soybeans that were not genetically engineered.''
A food industry spokesman said few consumers appear interested in buying non-biotech products. ``I don't really think you're going to see many companies going out and marketing them if we had the standard tomorrow,'' said Gene Grabowski of the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
Consumers who want to avoid bioengineered products already can buy organic products. Beginning this fall, foods that meet the government's standards for organic products, which bar the use of genetically engineered crops, will bear a special Agriculture Department seal.
Crawford also told the lawmakers Thursday that FDA has all but ruled out allowing the term ``cold pasteurization'' on foods that have been irradiated to kill harmful bacteria.
The food industry has been slow to use irradiation because of consumer resistance to the term. Lawmakers have been pushing FDA to allow such products to be called pasteurized.
But the agency tested the term ``cold pasteurization'' with consumer focus groups and found they viewed it ``as kind of a ruse to conceal the fact'' the food has been irradiated, Crawford said. ``The public needs to know that food has been irradiated and that irradiation is safe.''
He also said the special symbol that must appear on the labels of irradiated foods is ``threatening to the public.''