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Biotech crop guidelines raked

(Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

By PHILIP BRASHER Des Moines Register Washington Bureau 09/10/2002: Washington, D.C. - The Bush administration's proposed guidelines for protecting the food supply from crops engineered to produce medicines and vaccines don't go far enough, a critic said Monday.

"These are good suggestions, but they need to be more than suggestions," said Margaret Mellon, an industry critic with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "This basically says that for drug and environmental safety once again we're going to rely on the companies, implying that it is in their best interest to do these things."

The recommendations include engineering special colors into biotech plants so they can be readily identified, and growing crops that cross-pollinate, such as corn, in areas where those crops aren't grown for human food or animal feed.

The recommendations are included in a long-awaited policy proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The agencies will take comment on the proposals before implementing the policy.

The agencies said companies should "give careful consideration" to the plants they decide to engineer, including their potential to be toxic or cause allergic reactions in humans.

The policy would"strongly recommend" - but not necessarily require - that companies develop tests for identifying the novel gene in a pharmaceutical crop before planting it. That way, the biotech crops could be identified if they ever got mixed in with crops intended for food.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization advice to member companies is stronger than the administration guidelines in that it says firms should always develop tests for tracking bioengineered genes.

Mike Phillips, executive director for food and agriculture at the industry group, said the government policy is "pretty comprehensive. We think it's definitely something that we can begin working from."

The biotechnology industry was embarrassed two years ago when anti-biotech activists found in taco shells a variety of bioengineered corn that was intended only for animal feed. The discovery prompted massive food recalls, forced processing plants to shut down and reduced U.S. corn exports.

That corn, known as StarLink, has been withdrawn from the market, but the debacle has made food processors and farmers skittish about a repeat incident involving the new pharmaceutical crops.

Corn and other plants have been designed to produce special proteins for a variety of uses, including the manufacture of drugs. Some biotech corn grown in Iowa, for instance, contains an enzyme that helps victims of cystic fibrosis to digest their food.

This spring, the Agriculture Department tightened its planting restrictions for pharmaceutical corn to prevent contamination problems.

The biotech corn must be planted at different times than conventional corn in nearby fields so that the crops don't pollinate each other.

While some farmers are worried about contamination from the bioengineered corn, other growers see the crops as a source of income.

"The question is what type of regulatory framework there is to make sure we can do it safely without endangerment to the food supply," said Dave Miller of the Iowa Farm Bureau.