Groups Launch Campaign Against Biotech Foods

By Marc Kaufman, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday , July 20, 2000

Opponents of biotechnology have begun a national campaign to pressure major food companies to stop using ingredients made through genetic engineering, or at least to label their products that contain genetically modified material.

A coalition of activist groups announced yesterday that it has selected Campbell Soup Co. as the first of six targets, and that it would encourage consumers to protest directly to the company about its use of genetically engineered ingredients.

"As an American family icon associated with trust and wholesomeness, Campbell's has a responsibility to the American public," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, one of seven groups leading the campaign. He said that Campbell's does not use genetically engineered ingredients in Europe, and should do the same in the United States.

Campbell spokesman John Faulkner said yesterday that the company has no intention of avoiding the genetically engineered corn and soybeans it uses in the United States, and that foods made with the help of biotechnology are "equally safe and nutritious" as conventional foods. He said the company does not use genetically modified ingredients in Europe because the "supply chain" there is free of genetically modified foods. "Things are different in the U.S."

The anti-biotech campaign comes on the heels of a $50 million, nationwide effort by the biotechnology industry to promote the safety and usefulness of its products. The issue has been a highly contentious one in Europe for several years, and the newly organized campaigns for and against biotech suggest that it may become a higher profile fight in the United States as well.

The Food and Drug Administration has generally regarded plants and grains made through gene modification as no different from conventional crops. The National Academy of Sciences has largely supported the technology, saying in a recent report that it is safe and useful, though in need of increased regulation.

But opponents contend the technology has not been well tested, and that American consumers have become "guinea pigs" for a wide array of genetically modified products. They also say that the unplanned spread of modified seeds could have potentially harmful effects on the environment.

Their campaign against individual food companies parallels earlier European campaigns, and is designed to raise public concern before the September release of new Clinton administration rules on biotechnology. The activists believe that the proposed administration rules--which call for voluntary labeling of genetically engineered foods and mandatory notification when new biotech products are invented--are inadequate.

Genetically engineered foods are widespread in the United States; approximately one-third of the corn supply, for instance, comes from biotech sources. The biotechnology industry has opposed the additional government testing the activists are demanding, and has also opposed the labeling of genetically engineered foods.

"It would be unfortunate if those who are concerned about biotech foods feel they have to resort to using intimidation in order to promote their cause," said Stanley Abramson, an attorney who represents the biotech industry, in response to yesterday's announcement.

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