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Stage Set for 'Biotech' Debut at Grocery Store : Science: U.S. policy to be unveiled today regulates foods created by genetic engineering like other varieties.

May 26, 1992|MARLENE CIMONS and DONNA K. H. WALTERS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Signaling a new level of acceptance for one of the most sophisticated and provocative aspects of modern science, the Bush Administration is expected to announce today that new varieties of foods developed through biotechnology will be regulated exactly like all other foods.

The announcement, slated to be made by Vice President Dan Quayle at a press conference today, sets the stage for a new generation of genetically engineered fruits, vegetables and grains to reach grocers' shelves.

"These new technologies will benefit all Americans by providing foods that are tastier, more varied, more wholesome and that can be produced more efficiently," Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan said in a statement prepared for delivery today.

Sullivan and David A. Kessler, Food and Drug Administration commissioner, were scheduled to join Quayle in the announcement of the policy developed by the White House Council on Competitiveness, which Quayle heads.

"The policy . . . will ensure the safety of these foods while facilitating their availability as quickly as possible," Sullivan's statement said.

By treating foods created through genetic engineering and other "biotech" methods the same as other foods, the FDA will be considering the food itself and not the production process. It will still require pre-market clearance or review if substances have been added to the food or if changes made in the food raise safety questions.

But it apparently will not consider genetic manipulation by itself as an additive or a safety problem. Many genetically engineered foods, it said, may need no FDA review or clearance for marketing.

That is welcome news to companies in the nascent agricultural-biotechnology industry, which for the past decade have faced a tangle of regulations and reviews in the development phase of their products. While the newly stated policy appears to smooth the way to market, agricultural biotech companies are still hoping that other federal agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, soon will streamline their regulations and oversight of genetically engineered products.

Despite today's announcement, it still may be another year before consumers get to taste the first fruits of genetic engineering.

Calgene, the Davis, Ca.-based company expected to be first to market a food developed through biotechnology, said it hopes to begin selling its FlavrSavr brand of tomatoes by the second half of 1993. It will take that long, company officials have said, to grow enough successive generations of the plants for large-scale production.

Other companies, including Monsanto and DNA Plant Technology, are developing new varieties of tomatoes through biotechnology that, like Calgene's, are designed to taste better and last longer. In every living thing, genes determine all characteristics--including, in food crops, color, shape, vulnerability to pests and drought and, of course, taste. By manipulating genetic materials, scientists can enhance or introduce desired traits and minimize or eliminate others.

In the near future, ag-biotech companies hope to sell potatoes that won't soak up grease when they're turned into potato chips or French fries, and oil-producing plants that can fend off insects by themselves or resist harmful effects of weed-killing chemicals.

Despite the announcement, which Administration officials characterize as a clarification and logical extension of historical food-regulation policies, such companies still face many hurdles to full commercialization of their products.

Chief among them is public acceptance. The policy comes as a blow to some consumer and environmental groups that long have advocated strict regulatory control of all genetic engineering. Many of those groups will continue to seek strict oversight and are calling for specific labeling of any food produced through genetic manipulation, said Rebecca Goldberg, of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Goldberg said that while the Calgene tomato "is, if not desirable, at least not odious," activists are "not just concerned with first product, but with product number 151 or number 929." She said she is wary of a policy that places the responsibility for assessing a product's risks in the hands of its makers.

The FDA will issue guidelines for companies developing these new products to identify situations that would trigger review by the agency before the foods could be sold commercially.

But clearly, the policy delineates the federal government's view that biotechnology techniques are a tool and "do not raise new or unique safety issues that warrant additional regulatory oversight," by the FDA, an Administration source said.

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