Barboza, David. "2 Polices Square Off on Genetically Altered Food," New York Times, 19

 

Barboza, David. "2 Polices Square Off on Genetically Altered Food," New York Times, 19
November 1999, p. A30.

CHICAGO, Nov. 18 The Food and Drug Administration, while maintaining that its policy
regarding bioengineered foods is safe, opened the first of three public meetings on the subject
today and was greeted with both heated criticism and staunch support of genetically engineered
products.

Scientists and biotechnology industry officials argued today that the science behind genetically
engineered crops was sound and that federal regulators had done an exemplary job in approving
as safe the introduction of such products in the United States.

But opponents of genetically engineered crops, which have been endowed with abilities like
producing higher yield or growing their own insecticidal toxin, content that the federal approval
process was inadequate and that the products had not been proved to be entirely safe and could
pose a danger to both humans and the environment.

"Genetically engineered organisms released into the environment pose risks that are potentially
irreversible, untraceable and uncontrollable, said Charles Margulis, a spokesman for the
environmental group Greenpeace.

Bioengineered crops have been the subject of ferocious debate for months in Europe, where
public opposition to genetically modified foods led to calls for additional research, labeling and
even the banning of such products altogether.

Now environmental advocates in this country have counted their own effort to turn public
opinion against such products, putting the biotechnology industry on the defensive.

Frustrated by what they consider a vicious public relations campaign by a small group of
environmentalists, the biotechnology industry has been trying to mount its own campaign to
shore up confidence in a technology they have spent billions of dollars to develop.

Dr. Jane E., Henney, the commissioner of food and drugs, led the public meeting today but said
the agency would not comment on the proceedings; it was in listening mode.

And listen it did. After a series of panels about the safety of such products, the regulatory
approval process and food labeling, the F.D.A. opened the floor to members of the public.

Next came dozens of two-minute declarations for and against bioengineered products, delivered
to a panel of F.D.A. officials.

Some speakers accused the agency of being manipulated by giant biotechnology companies bent
on reaping billions.

Jane Alexander, an activist, dismissed the notion that traditional plant breeding was the near
equivalent of genetic engineering. "Shooting a cassette of genes into a plant is not like mating
your best bull with your best cow," she said.

But scientists, dietitians and industry officials said there were tremendous benefits to be reaped
from biotechnology, including more nutritious food, foods that can help fight disease, and crops
that do not require as much chemical treatment.

"I'm frankly puzzled by these allegations," said Jeffrey Stein, an official at Novartis, a
biotechnology company. "I contend that the charges that these products are unsafe are without
scientific merit."

Around lunchtime, about 80 activists rallied in Federal Plaza here, holding signs that read,
"Dinner shouldn't be a science project" and "Fear the genetically engineered God."

At one point, a group of girls aged 2 to 7, dressed as monarch butterflies, danced near a man
portraying a large stalk of corn bioengineered that released genetically engineered pesticides. All
the children fell down, playing dead, on cue.

But members of the biotechnology industry were also on hand, dismissing what they termed the
emotional ploys of their opponents.

"There is no evidence to support this stuff," said William McLeod, a former director at the
Federal Trade Commission and now a lawyer working with the Alliance for Better Foods, a
biotechnology group. "What these guys are saying is that we should go organic and take away out
choice. They want to put worms back in the food."