WASHINGTON -- Consumer groups urged federal regulators Tuesday to require labeling of foods that contain genetically modified ingredients and to tighten the approval process for biotech crops, but the food industry fears such labels would unfairly stigmatize the products.
"People are not confident with the process as it exists right now," said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America, testifying at the second of three hearings being held by the Food and Drug Administration on biotech foods.
Under a 7-year-old policy, the FDA considers genetically engineered crops to be essentially identical to conventional varieties, so the food industry isn't required to submit testing data or to put special labels on biotech products.
Genetically engineered foods have become increasingly controversial in Europe and Asia.
In the United States, public advocacy groups and some members of Congress are pressing the Clinton administration to at least require labeling. Some groups even want all genetically engineered ingredients tested on animals and people before they are approved for sale.
Foods containing biotech ingredients are found throughout the supermarket and in many restaurants. An estimated 57 percent of the soybeans and 30 percent of the corn planted in the United States this year was genetically engineered to resist pests or herbicides.
The food industry fears that requiring labels on biotech foods would make consumers unnecessarily wary of such products.
Experts on consumer behavior and nutrition told FDA officials Tuesday that shoppers don't understand biotechnology well enough to know what to make of such labels.
"They don't even have a clear understanding of traditional plant breeding, much less genetic engineering," said Mario Teisl, a University of Maine professor who has consulted with the Environmental Protection Agency on consumer labeling.
"What the consumer wants to know is how does this affect me, how does it affect the environment and how does it affect my family?" he said.
What is needed is a public education program to help consumers understand the technology, said Mildred Cody, a Georgia State University nutrition professor representing the American Dietetic Association. "Labeling without education is not effective," she said.
Instead of requiring labels on biotech foods, the FDA should develop standards for products that claim to be free from biotech ingredients, say food manufacturers. Any biotech-free claims "must be substantiated," said John Gray, president of the International Foodservice Distributors Association.
About 100 scientists, industry representatives, farmers and private citizens testified at the hearing.
Outside the building, a few dozen protesters chanted, some dressed as monarch butterflies in a reference to a Cornell University study of genetically modified corn. The study, based on laboratory tests, found the corn could be toxic to butterflies.
Consumers "must have and will have" a role in the debate over biotech foods, Foreman said.
"The only question is whether consumer influence will be built into the process from the beginning or whether it will be manifested through lawsuits and street demonstrations and ballot boxes," she said.
The FDA's last hearing will be Dec. 13 in Oakland, Calif.