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HEARD ON THE BEAT / FARMING AND FOOD

Hello, Dolly

March 15, 1997

A genetically cloned Scottish sheep named Dolly might be stealing the headlines these days. But the organic food industry is more concerned about what it calls "the wholesale manipulation of the world's food supply by a handful of biotech industries."

Last week in Anaheim, the American Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Foods--a coalition of scientists, activists and organic food makers--announced its effort to keep organic foods "pure."

Genetic engineering involves the altering of foods by inserting genes from bacteria and viruses or DNA from insects, fish and even human beings. Several such products are in the research and development pipeline and soon will be headed for grocery store shelves.

Many of the proteins and other components have never been part of the human diet before, and that raises a red flag for some scientists. Could a tomato with a flounder gene spliced into it (to keep the fruit from freezing) cause an allergic reaction in some unwitting diners? Such problems are not unknown. In 1989, a genetically engineered dietary supplement, L-tryptophan, caused 37 deaths in the United States and 1,511 cases of a nonfatal syndrome.

"Genetic engineering is far more frightening than cloning," said John Hagelin, director of the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, a group in Fairfield, Iowa.

The coalition seeks to make safety testing of such foods more stringent and require labeling of genetically engineered foods.

George Pauli, with the division of product policy in the Food and Drug Administration's office of premarket approval, noted that full-scale testing on human beings would be impractical for the thousands of new hybrids and genetically engineered foods that are coming onto the market. Current guidelines require companies to advise the government if they are inserting known allergens or toxins into food products and to reflect that in labels.

But such self-monitoring strikes the coalition as inadequate.

"Our effort," Hagelin said, "is for the organic industry to unite and say, 'No, this is where it stops.' "

Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at martha.groves@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 237-7837.

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