Washington Post (pg. E4)  [Printer-friendly version]
April 25, 2003


Beyond the Farm, U.S. Lacks System to Track Engineered Food, Report

By Justin Gillis, Washington Post Staff Writer

The government has no effective system of overseeing genetically
altered crops after they go to market, a regulatory gap that could
pose acute problems as more such crops are commercialized, according
to a new report. Two government agencies, the Food and Drug
Administration and the Agriculture Department, don't even attempt to
enforce rules on gene-altered crops after they're commercialized, and
may lack sufficient legal authority to do so, said the report,
commissioned by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

The third agency that regulates such crops, the Environmental
Protection Agency, has legal authority to set rules that apply after
commercialization but has established no effective means of enforcing
them, the report found.

A crop regulated by EPA and subject, in theory, to broad planting and
harvesting restrictions was the cause of the biggest failure yet in
crop biotechnology, the report noted. StarLink corn was supposed to be
approved for use only as animal feed, but farmers and seed companies
failed to honor government restrictions, and the corn wound up in a
wide variety of products on U.S. grocery shelves, forcing recalls in

That problem was caught not by a government surveillance program,
since none exists, but by an environmental coalition buying corn
products off the shelves of Safeway and having them tested.

The StarLink episode could be a harbinger as more genetically altered
products, including crops designed to grow pharmaceuticals and
industrial chemicals, are brought to market, said the report, released

The report was prepared for the Pew Initiative, a Washington think
tank set up to foster public discussion of genetic engineering, by
Michael Taylor and Jody Tick, analysts at Resources for the Future, a
group known for researching environmental questions.

Taylor emphasized in an interview that weak oversight has not resulted
in major health or safety problems. Even the StarLink debacle, which
cost food and biotechnology companies hundreds of millions of dollars,
is not known to have harmed anyone. Moreover, he said, a broad
government monitoring program could be costly and complicated, and its
purpose would be to guard against harms that are somewhat theoretical,
so more public discussion is needed on whether such an effort would be
worth the trouble.

If the public concludes that it wants more effective monitoring,
Taylor said, probably the only way to get it would be to pass a law in
Congress, since federal agencies have already stretched the intent of
old laws in their attempts to oversee the engineered crops.

Government agencies often lack the ability to test for the presence of
altered genes in food, the Pew report said.

And there's evidence to suggest the minimal restrictions that
government agencies are imposing are often ignored. For instance, the
EPA requires that farmers follow certain planting guidelines with
insect-resistant crops, but it leaves enforcement in the hands of the
companies selling the seed. Anonymous farmer surveys done by others
suggest that compliance with those rules may be as low as 60 percent
in some regions of the country, the report said. The government is not
inspecting farms to verify compliance.

"Looking ahead, there's some things that we normally look to
government regulation to do that aren't being done," Taylor said. "The
question is, do they need to be done for this technology?"

Spokesmen at the Agriculture Department, the FDA and the EPA
emphasized yesterday that they review biotech crops carefully before
they are brought to market, demanding food-safety studies and other
data, but they acknowledged that under current practice, it's largely
up to individual farmers and companies to obey government rules after
a crop is commercialized.

The regulators emphasized that any time they become aware of a
problem, they can take action, as in the StarLink case. EPA spokesman
David Deegan noted the agency has changed its rules to prevent any
case exactly like StarLink from happening again.

The agencies are already studying the question of whether more
aggressive monitoring of crops after they reach the marketplace --
regulators call it "post-market surveillance" -- is warranted, now or
in the future.

"We certainly welcome this new contribution to a discussion that has
been ongoing," said Cindy Smith, chief biotechnology regulator at the
Agriculture Department. Added James H. Maryanski, biotech coordinator
at the FDA: "It's very important to us to maintain the integrity of
the food supply. It's also important to make sure we don't inhibit a
new industry if it's not necessary."

The biotechnology industry has strongly opposed legislation to tighten
restrictions on gene-altered crops, declaring the current system
adequate. The report yesterday annoyed the Biotechnology Industry
Organization, a Washington trade group, which said in a prepared
statement that the Pew initiative "appears to be in search of a reason
for existence by commissioning a report on a nonissue." The group
added, "There are zero cases of any proven health issues associated
with the food products of biotechnology."