The international trade agreement reached this weekend to require labeling of genetically modified agricultural commodities is a boost to activists who are calling for an even more extensive scheme to slap labels on all food products that contain any trace of a biotech engineered ingredient.
Yet, carried to that extreme, few foods on U.S. supermarket shelves would escape labeling.
That's because genetic engineering, far more than most consumers realize, has transformed the nation's food supply over the last decade, changing the way a host of products are made, from bread to cheese, soft drinks to vitamins, and even some kinds of beer.
The international debate over genetically modified foods has generally focused on the crops themselves--grains, fruits and vegetables that have been transformed by splicing genes from one species into another, such as corn with built-in insecticides or soybeans that resist weedkillers.
But even if the plants were banished from the fields, it would be almost impossible to avoid foods produced with the help of genetic engineering, some of which have been on the market for 10 years.
Under the "biosafety protocol" agreement reached at a U.N.-sponsored meeting in Montreal, importers would have to be warned of grains and seeds that "may contain living modified organisms."
The treaty, however, does not resolve growing demands by critics of biotechnology, who are calling for labeling of any food if genetic engineering is used at any stage of its processing--whether it be an egg laid by a chicken fed biotech corn or a block of cheddar made with a milk-clotting protein from a genetically altered bacterium.
And the kind of labeling now being considered by Congress and the California Legislature and in a state ballot initiative now in circulation could cover any ingredient, whether the traces of the genetically modified organism that produced it can be detected in the final product.
"Labeling will empower consumers to make some choice," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has introduced legislation that would require labeling "without regard to whether the altered material or cellular characteristics of the organism are detectable in the material."
Kucinich and other critics of biotech foods raise two sorts of health and safety questions. Environmentalists worry that crops equipped with genes from other species to produce their own insecticides or to resist weedkiller will prove harmful to beneficial insects while creating super bugs and super weeds that will be very difficult to control.
The Montreal agreement is intended to address this issue by notifying countries when genetically modified grains and seeds are part of a shipment and giving the importing countries the choice to accept them.
But opponents of biotech food crops also raise concerns about potential health problems--unknown toxins and allergens that might inadvertently be introduced into foods--and they want labeling at the consumer level.
Public support for a labeling requirement has been building, first in Europe and Japan, and now in the United States.
With the help of health food stores across the country, the Natural Law Party last June delivered to Congress 500,000 signatures on a petition for labeling.
The political party's proposal would cover "all products prepared or processed using genetically engineered enzymes or other processing agents, whether those agents are present in the final product or not."
The measure would require labels on dairy and meat products from livestock that have been fed genetically engineered feed or treated with genetically engineered hormones, although the end product has no detectable level of the ingredient.
"These experimental techniques are rather crude and can create unforeseen mutations in the food itself, and those mutations can create allergens or toxins in food," said the party's press secretary, Robert Roth, voicing concerns shared by a number of environmental activists.
Without labeling, however, it is almost impossible to know which foods are processed with ingredients from bacteria or yeasts that have been transformed with a gene, a piece of DNA, transferred from another species.
U.S. officials and industry executives insist there is no danger. And a decade-long history of safety, they argue, backs up their contention that there is no difference in the safety of biotech foods from the traditional products they have replaced.
"We have no evidence of food safety issues here," said Laura Tarantino, deputy director of the FDA's office of premarket approval.
Firms Consult With FDA About Safety
Many companies consult with the FDA about health and safety issues raised by the use of food ingredients produced by genetically engineered organisms, but there is no requirement to do so for compounds that have a history of use in food processing or are similar to food additives that are regarded as safe.