What to do about "Frankenfoods'?

  • Protesters march in Oakland, CA, against bioengineered food

    Ali Bay/Capital Press

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may say bioengineered foods are safe, but two natural-food chains say they don't trust the agency's word.

Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets and Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market are banning genetically engineered foods from their private product lines. "There are significant unanswered health and environmental concerns," says a Wild Oats spokesperson.

Bioengineered foods are created by inserting plant or animal genes into another plant or animal. Critics of the technology have dubbed the products "Frankenfoods."

The companies' decisions came on the heels of public meetings the federal agency held last year on bioengineered foods. The meetings drew hundreds of people, a comment period drew even more, and now FDA staffers are sorting through almost a thousand pages of transcripts to determine the next step. Expressing the concern of many consumers, Mark Giese of Racine, Wis., told the FDA, "I want to know what's in my food."

Meanwhile, politicians are getting involved. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, introduced a bill to require mandatory labeling of bioengineered foods, and similar bills are expected in California.

As the debate heightens, scientists seem split. Some, such as Susanne Huttner, director of University of California's biotechnology program, say bioengineered foods are as safe as traditional foods. "New biotech foods are already subject to an extensive oversight system that addresses a variety of questions regarding food and environmental safety," she says.

But others, including University of Minnesota ecology professor Philip Regal, disagree: "I'm very concerned that the system is willing to gamble by not taking more steps to screen out the ecological and human-health risks of new products."

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