Food Companies Urged to End Use of Biotechnology Products
A coalition of consumer and environmental groups announced yesterday what they hope will be the biggest and best-organized effort yet in the United States to pressure food companies to abandon the use of genetically modified crops.
Starting with the Campbell Soup Company, the coalition said it would target well-known food companies and try to generate thousands of consumer letters, phone calls and signatures on petitions urging them to stop using genetically modified foods until more testing was done. The group also wants all companies to label products that contain such ingredients.
In Europe, food companies have largely abandoned the use of such ingredients because of consumer opposition fanned by aggressive campaigns. But in the United States, consumers have expressed little concern about genetically modified foods and many are not even aware that such foods are being sold.
"This is going to be the first sort of sustained effort on the European model," said Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, one of the groups in the coalition, the Genetically Engineered Food Alert. The coalition could spend $1 million, or more, he said. That is still considerably below the $50 million a group of agricultural biotechnology companies committed in April to spend over several years on television advertising and other measures to defend their products.
The group has named no other targets yet than Campbell. But Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, which is cooperating with the coalition though not a member, said the coalition would choose "corporations that have food products that Americans really regard as staples of their kitchen, that they feed to their kids." Besides soup, Campbell makes Pepperidge Farm cookies, V8 juice, Prego pasta sauce and Godiva chocolates.
John Faulkner, a Campbell's spokesman, said the company saw no need to eliminate genetically engineered ingredients because they were as "equally nutritious and equally safe" as nonmodified ones. He said that fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of calls to the Campbell's consumer hotline concerned genetic engineering. And even if Campbell wanted to eliminate such ingredients, he said, it could not, because a large percentage of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States is genetically altered. "We don't control the supply chain," he said.
Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing food companies, said the companies were following federal guidelines that do not require labeling genetically modified ingredients. "If the activists have an issue, it's not with the food companies but with the federal government," he said.
Still, pressuring food companies could be effective. Already, companies like McDonald's, Frito-Lay and Gerber -- whose parent company is Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant that makes and sells genetically modified corn and soybean seeds -- are reducing or eliminating genetically modified ingredients. They are doing so not because they think they are unsafe but because they are worried about consumer reaction.
There is no evidence that anyone has been harmed by eating the genetically engineered corn, soybeans, potatoes or other foods now on the market. Such crops are typically altered to resist pests and chemicals.
But critics say the foods have not been tested adequately. And they say labeling would give consumers a choice to avoid them. Food companies oppose mandatory labeling, saying it would scare consumers away.
Analysts, however, have noted that some dairy products produced from cows that have not been injected with a bovine growth hormone produced in bacteria are labeled, and only a very small percentage of consumers seek them out.
The Food and Drug Administration maintains that labels should pertain to the quality of the food, not to how it is made. The genetically engineered foods so far have the same nutritional value and safety as other foods, it says, so the use of genetic engineering per se should not be on the label.
The other groups in the food alert coalition are the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America and the State Public Interest Research Groups.
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