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Gerber Drops Biotech Suppliers

Gerber baby food will no longer use genetically engineered corn and soybean products, a company executive confirmed Friday.

But because trace amounts of the modified ingredients cannot be entirely excluded, the executive suggested the industry adopt a labeling standard that would allow a small amount of such ingredients -- say 2 percent or 3 percent -- for a label to claim the contents are free of such food.

The move by Gerber parent Novartis AG of Switzerland follows a request from the environmental group Greenpeace for information on the company's use of bioengineered products.

The company was evaluating their use before then, said Al Piergallini, president and CEO of Novartis' North American consumer health division, based in Summit.

Novartis expects that by the end of September it will no longer be using corn and soybeans that have been genetically altered to be resistant to pests and weedkilling chemicals, said spokeswoman Katherine King.

Such ingredients account for about half of 1 percent of Gerber's ingredients, and are used mainly in dry cereal, King said.

Gerber is the nation's largest maker of baby food, producing 5.5 million jars per day and annual worldwide sales of $1 billion.

Greenpeace fears possible health risks associated with genetically engineered foods, though Novartis officials said they still believe their existing Gerber products are safe.

Novartis said it was turning to other suppliers anyway, and is taking its changes a step further by adding a new promise to try to use only organic -- pesticide- and herbicide-free -- ingredients in Gerber products.

"We want a mother to buy our product and have no concerns," Piergallini said. "We've always tried to figure out if there were any concerns that troubled those people."

Two other baby-food makers, H.J. Heinz Co. of Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif.-based Healthy Time Natural Foods, have made similar product changes.

"It wasn't specifically pressure from any group," Heinz spokesman Jack Kennedy said. "It's really a matter of consumer preference."

Heinz products worldwide are virtually free of altered ingredients, with the exception of those sold in the United States, which are now being examined to determine which suppliers need to be changed, Kennedy said Friday.

He could not say when products free of such ingredients would be on the shelves, but did not think it would change the price.

Novartis also does not expect any price change, King said.

The move by Novartis was first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Friday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that, so far, it has found no particular health problems with genetically modified agricultural products, concluding that they "are as safe as other foods in the grocery store."

But European fears of genetic engineering have led to a trade dispute over importing of U.S. agricultural products. The British Medical Association ha expressed concerns about possible ill health effects from bioengineered ingredients.

Greenpeace makes no particular claims that genetically modified foods are dangerous to humans or the environment, arguing simply that the health risks are unknown.