GM fast food recall puts approval system in chaos
How did a GM maize variety not approved for human
consumption find its way into one of Americas most popular
fast foods? Its a question thats causing something of a
storm, reports US-based ag commentator Alan Guebert
THE catchy advertising jingle of Taco Bell Corp, the biggest seller of Mexican fast food in the USA, is "run for the border". In late September, however, Taco Bell itself was running for the border when tests showed that taco shells sold under its brand name contained a genetically modified maize variety not approved for human consumption.
When the news broke, everyone ran. Within 10 days, for example, Kraft Foods, the USAs largest food marketer which sells the taco shells through grocery stores, pulled all Taco Bell taco shells – a $50m (£34m)/year seller – from store shelves nationwide. This was the first time ever that a genetically modified food had been recalled from the American retail market.
The Taco Bell restaurant chain announced it would stop selling the shells through its fast food sites – another GM first.
Then the seller of the seed, Frances Aventis, pulled the GM seed variety, called StarLink, off the US market for the 2001 crop – an unprecedented biotech move.
Hoping to quash anti-GM anger, other US food companies, such as Quaker Oats, announced they would test their maize stocks for StarLink and members of Congress renewed calls for labelling food that contained GM material.
As the GM hurricane picked up force, farmers, food makers, consumers and Congress all asked: "How did this happen?"
The answer is simple. A weak federal regulator and a powerful industry lobby. In fact, the monitoring of biotechnology within the US government is so scattered – and the push for new biotech products by industry so strong – that the current system almost assures distrust.
Ironically, the government branch that most Americans look to for food safety, the Department of Agriculture, has nothing to do with GM food approval – USDAs chief regulatory responsibility is meat inspection. The principal US biotech regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency, spends most of its resources monitoring and enforcing air and water standards. After the taco recall, questions were asked over the EPAs ability to approve new food.
Once a product hits the market, however, the Food and Drug Administration is chiefly responsible for food safety. Critics say the system hits problems after the food in question enters the food retail chain. They also note that the FDA spends just $260m (£177m) to regulate more than 57,000 processors selling food in the USA. By contrast, the Department of Agriculture spends $712m (£484m) on meat and poultry inspection alone. These divided roles permit questionable food to slip through the regulatory net.
For example, the FDA approved the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (BST) in US dairy animals, basing its decision largely on research data submitted by Monsanto, a BST developer. But when the same data was submitted to Canada for approval there, regulators called it inadequate and forbade BSTs use in Canada. Today, the USA remains the only country where BST is legal.
Food safety advocates say this policy of "approve first, then withdraw if problems arise" is wrong; they want safety first, approval second. They say that biotech, the current US system, fosters the biggest scientific experiment in world history.
The StarLink maize controversy reignited that debate and put the safety-first advocates on high ground. In a US Senate hearing on Sept 26, one farm state senator praised the anti-biotech environmental group Friends of the Earth for disclosing the StarLink mistake. US consumers should not have to rely on public interest groups to conduct food screening for them, said the senator.
EPA and FDA agreed. Some in Congress renewed calls – and the biotech industry shivered – for labelling all foods that contain GM material.
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich proposed labelling legislation earlier this year. It went nowhere after being fiercely opposed by the 900-member Biotechnology Industry Organisation, which launched a $50m (£34m) media campaign to "educate" Americans on biotechs benefits.
But Krafts reaction to the StarLink firestorm caught the industry off guard. Kraft called for tougher regulation of GM products in the food system.
That is a smart move. Like Novartis, which has ordered GM products out of the food it sells, Kraft knows that one more mishandled biotech problem could make consumers run to its competitors. Since Kraft sells $27b (£18b) worth of food each year, an untarnished reputation is paramount to maintain its profits.
By calling for stiffer scrutiny of biotech, Kraft is placing full responsibility for future problems on an under-funded government while hoping to preclude any legislation for costly labelling. That is smart business and smart politics.
And it makes sense. After all, US backers of GM have long advocated that the marketplace should decide the fate of biotech food. The results so far, courtesy of Novartis, Aventis and Kraft, suggest more and more companies are discovering that the easiest way to handle biotech food is to just say no.
The monitoring of biotechnology
within the US
government is so
scattered – and the push for new biotech products by industry so strong – that the
this policy of "approve first, then withdraw if problems arise" is wrong; they want