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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. to Re-examine Biotech Safety

WASHINGTON -- Faced with a growing consumer backlash in Europe and Asia against genetically modified, or GM, foods, a U.S. government agency said Monday it would re-examine the safety of the foods and whether special labels may be needed.

The Food and Drug Administration's decision to hold public hearings on GM foods came amid concern by foreign consumers that not enough is known about the long-term effects of products made from bioengineered corn, soybeans, potatoes and other crops.

A growing number of nations are requiring labels on GM foods to give consumers more information, an option that the Clinton administration previously rejected as unnecessary for foods deemed safe by the FDA.

Labels are also opposed by U.S. food industry groups, which contend there is no reason to slap a special label on food that the FDA judges as safe.

"Although people have enthusiastically accepted new drugs made from biotechnology, some consumers have concerns about the use of this technology in foods," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "We need to ask why those concerns exist and how we can address them."

To gauge the American public's views about GM foods, the FDA said it would hold public meetings.

"We are thinking broader than just traditional labeling," said Joseph Levitt, head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Regulators would "look at alternative and creative ways like web sites" for consumers to obtain information about foods made from GM crops, he added.

Current FDA rules require companies to add special labels to bioengineered food products only if they are changed significantly or introduce a potential allergen from another food.

But the European Union, Japan, Australia and others have launched plans for the mandatory labeling of some GM foods in response to consumer demands. In Canada, food retailers are trying to develop voluntary labeling guidelines.

The labeling of biotech foods is shaping up as a contentious issue at the next round of World Trade Organization talks, due to begin in late November. The U.S. agency's action announcement on Monday was "entirely independent" of the WTO talks that begin late next month in Seattle, Levitt said.

A Gallup poll published earlier this month found that 27 percent of Americans surveyed believed biotechnology posed a serious health hazard, while 53 percent did not thinkit was a hazard. The remaining 20 percent said they were unsure if GM foods were dangerous.