Sifting through rows of corn or piles of potatoes at the grocery store, consumers might never expect the produce they peruse to contain scorpion venom or chicken genes.
But it often does, thanks to the accelerating biotech industry, which commonly cross-breeds species to produce more desirable characteristics in crops.
Some scientists say the food industry plays Russian roulette with consumers’ health when they introduce alternate genes into whole foods.
As of now, these enhanced fruits and vegetables sell alongside naturally grown foods, the difference inapparent to buyers.
But University ecology professor Dr. Philip Regal wants consumers to know exactly what science is doing to the food supply. Regal, an expert consultant on biological industry practices, signed on as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration’s policy that lets enhanced foods go unchecked and unlabeled.
“I’m not against genetically engineered plants,” Regal said. “I’m against people not knowing what they’re eating.”
Filed Wednesday, the complaint demands the FDA carefully regulate genetic engineering methods, while requiring food labels that expose the methods to consumers. The FDA deems the practice unnecessary; food industry officials call it “turning back the clock” on important technological advancements.
The International Center for Technology Assessment, a national, nonprofit organization, rounded up a coalition of more than 20 scientists, religious leaders, health professionals, consumers and chefs to support the suit.
“We thought it would be important for the judge to see how serious we are about this,” said Andrew Kimbrell, lead attorney for the coalition. “This is a very important step, and a very courageous one.”
More than five years of petitioning and making recommendations did nothing to change the FDA’s stance on the issue, Kimbrell said, adding that bringing a lawsuit to change a policy is not unusual.
Kimbrell said President Clinton’s administration willingly settles policy matters, and is optimistic for a resolution.
“It’s difficult for me to see how they will fight this,” he said.
Food industry leaders, exasperated by the thought that anyone would want to hinder the progress of food production technology, will keep a close watch on the suit.
“The amazing thing about biotech is its ability to feed the world,” said Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the world’s largest association of food, beverage and consumer brand companies.
Sansoni maintains that foods engineered biologically are wholesome and natural, and that attempts to regulate their production stem from unfounded fears.
“The FDA’s policy in 1992 wasn’t casually approved,” Sansoni said.
He also admits a change in the policy would be costly.
“The potential for havoc to be caused by overturning the FDA regulations would reach farm-wide, with the need for relabeling and retesting,” he said.
FDA officials said they intend to stand by their policy. FDA spokeswoman Judith Foulke said food manufacturers are not required to report the specifics of their methods, but operate in their best interest when they do.
“Foods are foods, and there are laws that must be adhered to,” Foulke said. “We trust that responsible food manufacturers will come to us when they have doubts.”
But food safety is not the only concern that spurned the lawsuit.
The 180-page complaint also alleges the FDA’s failure to label genetically altered foods infringes upon citizens’ rights to freely practice religion.
“There are faith communities with diet strictures that have to know what they are eating,” said the Rev. Dr. Colin B. Gracey, Episcopal Chaplain at Northeastern University in Boston. Also listed as a complainant, Gracey represents the many religious faiths concerned with the new biotechnology.
“Not labeling these foods leads those folks in the dark, and strips them of their freedom of choice,” Gracey said. “Then it becomes a spiritual issue. How can they practice?”
Regal and Gracey are unsure if they will be called upon to testify, should the case go to trial.
But having spent more than 15 years addressing the new food technologies, Regal said he would willingly offer his expertise.
“If we don’t regulate, if we don’t label,” Regal said, “God knows what can wind up in our food supply.”