WASHINGTON -- Responding to the growing controversy over genetically engineered foods, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman last week announced plans to conduct a study of their long-term effect on the environment and safety of consumers.
In a pro-biotechnology speech to members of the National Press Club here, Glickman called for an independent scientific review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's biotech approval process. He also proposed the establishment of regional centers around the country to evaluate biotech products over long periods of time and to provide information to growers, consumers, researchers and regulators. The USDA will also conduct an internal review to make sure its regulatory and product promotion functions are kept separate.
"I want you to know that biotechnology has enormous potential for all Americans and for all the citizens of the world," Glickman said. "But as with any new technology, the road is not always smooth. Now more than ever it is important that as we encourage the development of these new food production systems, we cannot blindly embrace their benefits. We have to ensure public confidence in general, consumer confidence in particular and assure farmers the knowledge that they will benefit."
Glickman stopped short of proposing that genetically altered food be labeled, but said "informational labeling is likely to happen.
"I do believe that it is imperative that such labeling does not undermine trade, thus undermining this promising new technology," he said.
Glickman also said the Clinton Administration would push Europe to accept American farm products like soybeans and corn even if that means placing tariffs on European-made food this summer. In Europe, a fear of genetically altered foods has led the European Union to require labeling of all genetically manufactured products imported from the United States.
"I believe that distrust is scientifically unfounded," Glickman said of Europe's biotech fear. "It comes in part from the lack of faith in the EU to assure the safety of their food."
A spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America here praised the speech: "It reaffirmed the safety of foods developed through biotechnology.
"It restated for us how companies are constantly monitoring the use of their products and making sure that the products are safe. It's standard operating procedure for our companies and the biotech companies as well. The value of the brand and product are No. 1," the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute, also here, said, "We would agree with the secretary that the regulatory process should not be politicized. Food-safety regulations should always be based on sound science. We're not happy that the Europeans are saying they won't accept our beef, but we're not happy when the U.S. reacts in a similar manner.
"On genetically modified foods in general , we support the current labeling provisions that are in place. If a food has been significantly altered or poses a health risk it should be labeled. Otherwise, we don't necessarily see that a whole new system needs to be put in place."