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U.S. doesn't want to see spread of Europe-style GMO labeling laws

(Thursday, April 8, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Philip Brasher, DesMoines Register, 04/04/04: Washington, D.C. - The war between the United States and Europe over genetically engineered food is about to take another turn.

Later this month, new rules take effect in Europe that require labeling and extensive documentation for both food and animal feed that contain biotech ingredients.

That means U.S. farm groups and President Bush's administration face a tough decision: Should the administration risk antagonizing Europeans once again by challenging the labeling rules in the World Trade Organization?

The labels themselves are not really the problem. They never appear on European grocery shelves anyway because food companies just will not use biotech corn or soybeans for products they sell there.

There is so much opposition to genetically modified crops in Europe that food companies would just as soon put a skull and crossbones on their packages than one of those biotech labels.

What worries U.S. farmers and agribusiness executives is the documentation and testing necessary to comply with the rules and the potential that the rules - and European attitudes - will spread worldwide.

Karil Kochenderfer of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents such multinational companies as General Mills and Kraft Foods, says the rules set a dangerous precedent.

"What the Europeans are saying is that a safe product should not be allowed on the marketplace," he said.

The White House already is struggling to mend fences with Europe over the war in Iraq. And the administration has a WTO case pending against Europe over biotech food. That complaint challenges Europe's refusal to approve new genetically engineered crops. "Consumers don't want to buy these products and they want more information," said Wim Tacken, the Dutch government's agriculture representative in Washington.

Tacken attended a recent meeting in Washington of U.S. agriculture and food industry officials, who were complaining that the new rules were going to be difficult at best to comply with. Tacken acknowledged that the rules were "quite an administrative burden."

The bigger problem in the long run for U.S. agribusiness is that the views - and rules - of the Europeans will take hold in the rest of the world.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, calls it the "EU disease." "You have all these other countries around the world looking at the EU and saying, 'If it works for them and they're not challenged, and no one says anything, by gosh it will work for us,' " Stallman said.

"You have to constantly challenge where you think the rules of the WTO are not being complied with," Stallman said. "If you don't, everyone else picks up on the same game plan."

The European rules already are having an effect on research into biotech crops.

Soybean processing giant Bunge Limited wanted plant breeders to use conventional breeding methods in developing a new generation of soybeans that will not produce trans fats when turned into oil and shortening. That way, products from the new-style soybeans can be shipped to Europe "without any issues," as one company official put it.

It's not just the requirement for labels that's a problem for U.S. companies.

Depending on how the regulations are interpreted, they could require shippers to identify any biotech DNA that might show up in a load of grain, even in trace amounts. Industry officials are worried about the rules because grain is commonly contaminated with trace amounts of unintended crop varieties.

Remember StarLink, the biotech corn that was removed from the market in 2000? It still shows up in grain in tiny amounts even though it has not been grown by farmers for years.