MODIFIED MOVES

The noise level surrounding genetically modified food ingredients seems to rise and fall quite a lot, for no evident reason. Last week was one of those times when noise increased from all directions.Actually, a few notes of music emerged from the cacophony last week when a long-pending lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration was dismissed by a judge of U.S. District Court, Washington, D.C.Let's

The noise level surrounding genetically modified food ingredients seems to rise and fall quite a lot, for no evident reason. Last week was one of those times when noise increased from all directions.

Actually, a few notes of music emerged from the cacophony last week when a long-pending lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration was dismissed by a judge of U.S. District Court, Washington, D.C.

Let's start at the beginning: In 1992, FDA issued a policy to the effect that GM ingredients are safe and that they would not be regulated as food additives. In 1998, a suit was filed against FDA that sought to oblige FDA to abandon that outlook and require it to test products containing GM ingredients to demonstrate their harmlessness and to require labeling of such products. The suit was led by an organization in Fairfield, Iowa, "Alliance for Bio-Integrity." The group also opposes GM on ethical and religious grounds.

The dismissal of the legal challenge to the FDA's policy is all to the good, but a more pointed campaign -- one based on public, not legal pressure -- created a little more noise last week, and will probably continue to do so in upcoming weeks. This campaign is by Greenpeace, an organization that tends to target specific brands. For instance: Greenpeace activists were on hand at last month's Natural Products Expo East 2000 in Baltimore to lobby against Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, as they have done at many venues. The anti-Kellogg campaign includes the distribution of a flyer that's at once a grossly unfair and humorous attack on the cereal. There's more on the anti-Kellogg campaign on Page 57.

But Greenpeace's latest move was to issue a broadside against dozens of brands by means of a booklet that evaluates products. The publication lists specific brands, stipulating whether they contain GM ingredients, or if their maker has pledged to remove them, or if they contain none at all. Additionally, there's a list of supermarket chains that are "likely" to sell private-label product containing GM ingredients. On that list are A&P, Albertson's, Food Lion, Giant, Kroger, Safeway, Shaws and Trader Joe's. Mentioned as having pledged to remove such product are Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Genuardi's. You can take a look at the new Greenpeace initiative by going to www.truefoodnow.org.

All this comes in addition to the self-inflicted wound GM suffered when corn not approved for human consumption was found in taco shells sold at Taco Bell outlets. That situation prompted a voluntary recall by the shells' maker, Kraft Foods, and the FDA's pledge to test for non-authorized GM ingredients. The taco fiasco -- which simply cannot be repeated -- is sure to prompt a flurry of lawsuits; in fact, that has started already.

So far, developments such as these haven't had too much of an effect, but every bit of noise contributes a decibel or two. And that may continue until this much-needed advance in agriculture's ability to feed the world is jeopardized.