New FDA policy allows GM contamination of food supply

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 23, 2004, Friends of the Earth: A new policy to be published tomorrow in the Federal Register by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would allow contamination of the American food supply with experimental genetically engineered (GE) material that escapes from GE crop test plots [1]. The policy sets out loose "safety assessment" guidelines under which companies may voluntarily consult with the FDA to have their experimental biotech traits deemed "acceptable" as contaminants in food.

"With this policy, the government is condoning the contamination of our food and seed supply with genetic material from thousands of biotech crop experiments," said Bill Freese, a research analyst with Friends of the Earth.

Government records reveal that over 40,000 separate GE crop field tests have been authorized on over half a million acres since 1987 in the US. Roughly 1,000 field trial authorizations are currently in effect, spanning over 56,000 acres.

"FDA's new proposal has nothing to do with food safety, it's designed to provide biotech companies with legal cover for contaminating the food supply with experimental biotech traits," said Freese.

FDA's proposed "safety assessment" is based on paperwork and two inadequate tests that FDA estimates will take companies just 20 hours to complete. The proposed review does not involve safety tests in animals, and it excludes testing for unintended effect caused by genetic engineering. It also sets no limits on the amount of contamination allowed in foods.

The field tests include crops genetically engineered for herbicide or insect resistance, altered nutritional properties for use as animal feed, and sterile pollen or seeds. Others are engineered to produce pharmaceuticals or anti-fungal compounds that resemble proteins that cause food allergies.

"Nearly half the genes in experimental biotech crops in the ground right now are kept confidential as trade secrets of the biotech companies," said Freese.

Government data compiled by Friends of the Earth reveals that 47% of the genes in current field trials are listed as "confidential business information."

The FDA's proposal comes in response to a 2002 directive from the Bush Administration. FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford described it as "a high priority for the Administration and the industry, to enhance public confidence, avoid product recalls, and provide an international model" for similar policies around the world [2]. The US biotechnology and grain industries are calling on the US government to "vigorously promote global adoption" of similar rules [3].

In January, the US Dept. of Agriculture proposed a similar policy for its sphere of GE crop regulation (plant pest risks). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to issue a corresponding proposal applicable to pesticide-producing GE crops in the near future.

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