by Danielle Knight

Washington, 10 Nov. 99 (IPS) -- A group of US lawmakers said Wednesday they would introduce legislation soon to require the mandatory labelling of all food containing trace amounts of genetically engineered products.

Called the "Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act" the proposed bill would oppose the current US regulatory position that genetically modified foods were no different from other food products.

The bill would include the labelling of meat, diary and poultry products. Foods that contained milk from a cow injected with genetically engineered hormones, for example, would be labelled as produced with genetically engineered material.

The 20 lawmakers said the wide presence of genetic engineering in today's foods posed certain health risks, including increased toxicity, increased exposure to allergens and antibiotic resistance.

"Today's limited scientific knowledge warrants allowing consumers to make a better, more informed choice," Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, told reporters. He said he was working with Senators on parallel labelling legislation.

Kucinich and other representatives pointed to unforeseen reports such as the Cornell University study that concluded pollen from genetically modified Bt corn was toxic to Monarch butterfly larvae.

They said biotechnology also may result in other unintended environmental risks, including the cross pollination of gen-tech crops with wild plants, causing pesticide resistance and the growth of so-called 'super-weeds.'

While the policy makers said biotechnology may provide some benefits, they said consumers should be allowed to know what is in the food they are eating.

"I believe bio-engineered foods hold great potential for consumers, but US citizens have the right to make informed decisions about the food they buy," said Jack Metcalf, a Republican representative from Washington state.

The launch of the proposed legislation follows a call made earlier this week by 48 mostly Democratic members of Congress, who urged the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to label all bio-tech food. Representative David Bonior, the second-ranking Democrat in the House said the FDA must ensure that consumers get the "vital information" they need about bio-engineered foods.

Lawmakers said the FDA could easily require the special labels, much like it does for foods treated with irradiation or to identify a fruit juice as fresh or frozen, or non-fat products.

Genetically modified foods make up a growing percentage of the US food supply. More than 50% of US produced soybeans is now genetically engineered and about 30% of corn is grown from altered seed.

Despite the widespread application of the new technology, however, US consumers' worries about the products have not paralleled the widespread concern in Europe.

Responding to consumers fears of long-term health and environmental problems because of gene modification, the European Union recently said it would require labels on foods containing more than one percent genetically-altered ingredients.

Japan and Australia, among the other countries, already have adopted labelling requirements but supporters of labelling products worry that their efforts may be challenged if they are seen as barriers to free trade.

Kucinich and other representatives said they predicted the issue of labels likely would be discussed at the upcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle, Washington, Nov. 30-Dec 3.

"If consumer labels are in fact challenged at the WTO," it would further prove that the global trade body should be "drastically revised," said Kucinich.

Consumer, public health and environmental organisations praised the proposed labelling bill.

"By requiring the labelling of all genetically engineered foods, the legislation will provide some of the information necessary for the public to make informed choices about the types of food they consume," said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Washington based Center for Food Safety.

Because genetic engineering can increase natural toxin levels in food and transfer allergens into new foods, people with food or chemical sensitivity should be able to know how to avoid these products, said Jean Halloran, director of the Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute.

"Someone who suffers from food allergies should have the right to know how to avoid food that has been genetically altered," she said.

Representative Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont said mass public support will be needed to pull enough lawmakers behind the bill. Sanders had tried and failed to pass similar legislation to label dairy products made with the milk of cows that had been injected with bovine growth hormones.

"We will not be successful unless many people rally behind this idea," he said. (SUNS4550)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .