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Will public accept Monsanto's GM wheat in bread?

(Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/22/03: WASHINGTON - As Monsanto Co. pushes genetically modified wheat toward the market, the food industry and farmers are wondering if consumers will accept genetic engineering with their daily bread.

Kraft Foods North America, the nation's biggest food company, said last week that it doesn't know if it will use engineered wheat in its products because of consumer unease.

"Many, many people are not quite sure what the benefits are, and this, to us, presents something of a problem," said Ronald Triani of Kraft Foods North America, referring to the company's internal polling. Triani, along with other industry officials, also criticized the Food and Drug Administration's evaluation process for wheat and other products as being only voluntary rather than required.

The industry officials spoke during a Washington forum called "GE Wheat: Is America Ready?" exploring issues related to genetically engineered wheat. It was sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group in Washington.

FDA action on Monsanto's proposal to commercialize Roundup Ready wheat is expected soon. An FDA official said Wednesday that the agency has exceeded its 180-day internal time limit for such reviews.

Monsanto, based in Creve Coeur, faces several regulatory barriers along with self-imposed hurdles. It could take many months and even years before engineered wheat reaches farm fields.

But the prospect is drawing scrutiny because engineered wheat poses consumer issues weightier than those accompanying the arrival of modified soybeans and corn. Unlike the plans for wheat, most engineered soybeans and corn is grown for animal food or ends up in human diets only in small amounts.

"Wheat is the first human food crop, and genetically modified wheat will be going into flour used in bread, cakes and cookies," said Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Reviews of modified wheat have turned up no known safety concerns. But industry officials are encouraging caution on Monsanto's part and beefed-up regulations because of pockets of concern in the United States and deep suspicion of modified food around the world.

Jerry Steiner of Monsanto said that because of wheat's sensitivity, his company had imposed a half-dozen conditions that must be met before it would sell modified seeds. They include regulatory approval in Canada, Japan and the United States as well as systems in place for segregating the gene-altered wheat from conventional varieties.

Daren Coppock, who heads the National Association of Wheat Growers, said wheat farmers see themselves "on the horns of a dilemma." On one hand, engineered seeds could mean easier production and possible cost savings. But, Coppock said, global opposition could threaten exports for an industry that has seen exports and commodity prices plummet.

"It could be the greatest product in the world, but if the customer doesn't buy it, it's not worth anything to us," he said.

Triani, of Kraft, said his company continues to detect concern about genetically modified food in opinion surveys. He said 11 internal polls in recent years produced similar results: Of the roughly 70 percent of people aware of genetically modified food, about one-fourth are uneasy about the prospect of eating it, he said.

The industry officials argued that the FDA might alleviate some of the fears with a more aggressive review that ended in a declaration that products are safe.

Under its policy of voluntary review, the FDA reviews company studies rather than conducting tests. A letter from the FDA indicating that it has no more questions is tantamount to approval.

The FDA has resisted pressure from all sides to make its process mandatory. Jeanette Glew, who supervises a six-member team examining Monsanto's application, argued that her agency lacks congressional authority to approach the review differently.

"We feel that the process works," she said. "Sometimes people don't understand the authority under which we are looking at this data, which companies bring to us voluntarily. A safety declaration is not something we make."

Reporter Bill Lambrecht blambrecht@post-dispatch.com