A federal judge has handed the ag biotech sector a victory by dismissing a lawsuit filed in 1998 by several activist groups seeking labeling of foods containing genetically modified components and mandatory safety testing.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in a Sept. 29 ruling in the U.S. District Court at Washington, said the Alliance for Bio-Integrity failed to prove its contention that the Food and Drug Administration violated environmental laws and procedures in its policy that genetically modified crops are considered the same as conventionally-bred crops.
"We applaud the court's finding that genetically modified foods do not need to be singled out for different treatment than other food products," said Jay Vroom, president of the American Crop Protection Association, the Washington-based non-profit trade organization representing major manufacturers, formulators, and distributors of crop protection, pest control, and biotechnology products.
"We will continue to support the efforts of the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the USDA to maintain and strengthen consumer and farmer confidence in crop biotechnology."
Vroom said the judge's decision reaffirms the FDA's 1992 policy statement that genetically modified foods are generally recognized as safe and that the GMO components need not be regulated as food additives. The policy also said that labeling of such foods would not be required, because the genetic engineering did not change the food in any material way.
The FDA position has been strongly supported by the Clinton administration.
Barring a decision by the FDA that biotech components are materially different from those from conventional crops, the agency "lacks a basis upon which it can legally mandate labeling - regardless of consumer demand," said the judge's ruling.
The FDA said earlier this year it will propose mandatory safety reviews for new GMO products, even though it maintains its position that they pose no risks. Such reviews are currently voluntary. While it does not plan to require labeling of products containing GMO components, the FDA plans to develop guidelines that may be used by manufacturers wishing to provide labels.
The judge's decision comes on the heels of the tainted taco shells episode, which garnered widespread media attention and resulted in a nationwide recall of the products that were made with a corn flour that had been contaminated with a genetically modified variety approved only for animal feed, not human consumption.
While activist groups and some members of Congress stepped up calls for stiffer rules on biotech crops and food, consumer reaction was muted. Surveys continue to show the majority of the public feels government procedures are adequate to insure the safety of the food supply.
To further shore up consumer confidence, the FDA has announced that it will conduct tests of cereals, snack foods, and other corn-based products to see if the unapproved variety is found.
The anti-biotech groups have indicated they will not appeal the Washington court ruling, but will carefully scrutinize the FDA's upcoming proposal for mandatory safety reviews for new GMO products.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization has announced plans for an advisory panel "to serve as a sounding board" on biotech issues. It will include farmers, exporters, consumer groups, food manufacturers, and other groups. The organization said its member companies will also make available to the public more scientific and policy information about biotechnology.