Washington Post (pg. E4), April 25, 2003


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

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 2000.

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 yesterday.

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."