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By Miranda Blue September 11, 2007

Biotech foods less widespread and better tested than Kucinich says

At a cancer forum in Iowa sponsored by Lance Armstrong, Kucinich said, "In 1992 the Food and Drug Administration approved, without any scientific basis, the manufacturing of genetically modified organisms for food. Our whole food system in this country has now been — most of it is genetically engineered. And no safety testing was done, no testing for the health consequences of this food."

He's exaggerating.

First, a little history. The FDA caused a storm of controversy in 1992 when it declared that it would hold plants developed through biotechnology to the same standards as all other foods. Under the ruling, foods made with plants whose genetic material had been altered using biotechnology would not face higher scrutiny than foods produced in traditional ways.

In 1994, the agency for the first time approved a bioengineered food product — a tomato that resisted rotting — for human consumption.

Although the safety standards are the same for bioengineered and traditional foods, the agency says that, in practice, genetically modified foods usually receive a more thorough review. These foods are subject to a voluntary consultation process, where the producer can choose to review its own health research with the FDA's scientists.

That process appears to give an advantage to the food companies, but it still involves more testing than Kucinich's statement suggests.

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As of 2004, every bioengineered food product on the market had completed this consultation process, the FDA said. (More recent statistics were not available.)

So Kucinich exaggerates when he says that "no safety testing" has been done on the products that are on the market, although the process has been criticized for giving food companies too much influence.

In 2001, the New York Times reported on the political considerations that went into the FDA's decisions on genetically engineered foods in the 1990s, revealing that many scientists in the agency had expressed doubts about the safety of the foods but were silenced by the focus on the deregulation of industry by the first Bush administration.

Many environmental groups continue to push for greater regulation of genetically modified foods, including labeling, while the FDA continues to insist that these foods do not pose health risks to consumers.

Kucinich is closer to the mark with his claim that most food is genetically engineered.

The Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group critical of biotechnology, says that a handful of genetically modified crops - mostly corn, soybeans, canola and cotton — account for most of the foods involved. But the group also estimates that 60 to 70 percent of processed foods contain at least some residual genetically modified organisms. Joe Mendelson, the group's spokesman, said Kucinich "has firm ground to say it's penetrated our food markets a great deal. But it is certainly not everything."

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