CHICAGO (FNS) -- The windy city proved a heated ground for the first in a series of Food and Drug Administration public hearings on bioengineered foods.
The meeting, aimed at gathering public opinion on the safety of biotech foods, featured square-offs between consumer advocates, environmentalists and organic agriculturists, who all shared differing opinions on the safety of gene-altered foods during eight hours of testimony.
Nearly 100 people spoke at the hearing, but most of the session was devoted to discussions by panels on the FDA's current policy. Under FDA policy, developers of bioengineered foods are expected to consult with the agency before marketing such foods to ensure safety issues have been addressed.
The policy also requires that genetically modified foods be labeled as such only when a food's nutritive value has been significantly altered or when consumers need to be informed about a safety issue.
"FDA's food regulatory system relies on the best science available to protect the public," FDA Commissioner Dr. Jane Henney told those in attendance. "Our scientists are not aware of any reason to question the safety of currently marketed foods produced through bioengineering. But as a science-based agency, FDA will consider any valid scientific information that suggests the agency should reevaluate its process for overseeing the safety of these foods."
Outside the hearing members of Greenpeace and other environmental and consumer groups protested with signs saying "Genetically engineered food is poison." They also staged skits depicting gigantic gene-altered ears of corn and a farmer injecting hormones into a papier-mache cow.
Charles Margulis, who represented Greenpeace's genetic engineering campaign, reaffirmed the organization's opposition to genetic engineering saying the FDA's record on the issue is "not confidence-inspiring."
He stressed the importance of labeling all genetically-engineered foods.
Carl B. Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, acknowledged that introducing any new technology should be done cautiously.
"However, we should not let those who steadfastly resist progress set the agenda for the rest of society," he said. "People also have a right to know about the current and future benefits of agricultural biotechnology, which eventually, like our drugs, will significantly contribute to our health."
Two days prior to the hearing, about 40 food and farm organizations sent President Clinton a letter asking him to "resolutely support" the FDA's current labeling policy for bioengineered foods.
"The FDA has vested its considerable credibility with consumers in the veracity of product labels in representing the safety and nutritional value of foods," the letter said. "If the FDA were to change its policy and require special labeling for biotech foods, such labeling could have the effect of misleading consumers into believing that biotech foods are either different from conventional foods or present a risk, even though the FDA has determined that biotech food is safe."
The letter was signed by Food Distributors International, Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Grocer's Association.
A second FDA public meeting is scheduled to be held Nov. 30 in Washington, D.C. The final hearing is Dec. 13 in Oakland, Calif.