The lawsuit challenged the Food and Drug Administration's 8-year-old policy that considers gene-altered crops to be essentially the same as those produced by conventional breeding methods and thus not subject to the same regulatory controls as food additives.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in a ruling Sept. 29, said the biotech critics failed to prove that FDA violated procedural and environmental laws in establishing the policy or that the agency should mandate labeling of the foods.
Unless the agency decides biotech ingredients are materially different from conventional products, it "lacks a basis upon which it can legally mandate labeling, regardless of consumer demand," she wrote.
Genetically engineered crops, herbicide-resistant soybeans in particular, became popular with farmers in the late 1990s and are found in products throughout supermarkets.
The FDA policy was established in 1992 in the last year of the Bush administration and has been defended vigorously by the Clinton administration. FDA officials announced this spring that they would propose mandatory safety reviews of new gene-altered products but they insist they still believe the foods are safe. Such reviews are now on a voluntary basis.
The lawsuit was filed in 1998 by several anti-biotech organizations, including The Center for Food Safety, and a group of scientists and religious leaders.
They don't plan to appeal the decision and will instead wait to see what rules FDA proposes for the mandatory reviews, said Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney who handled the lawsuit. Industry officials say the FDA rules are unlikely to make much difference in how foods are brought to market.
"Genetically engineered foods have gone virtually unregulated in the United States," Kimbrell said Wednesday.
Anti-biotech groups also are likely to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency as it decides in coming months whether to renew registrations for several varieties of corn that have been genetically modified to resist insect pests, Kimbrell said.
The biotechnology industry has been on the defensive in recent weeks because of a nationwide recall by Kraft Foods last month of taco shells that were found to contain a variety gene-altered corn that hasn't been approved for human consumption.
The decision "reinforces the integrity of the system, which is based on sound science, at a time when this system is under discussion," said Michael Phillips, who directs agricultural issues for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The FDA said this week that its own lab confirmed the corn was in the taco shells nd said it planned to test additional products.
The corn, known as StarLink, is the only biotech crop that is not approved for food use. Aventis CropScience, which developed the corn variety, has agreed to reimburse the government for buying all of this year's crop to ensure that it does not get into the food supply again. EPA allows the corn to be used only for animal feed because of unresolved questions about whether it could cause allergic reactions in people.
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed