Should This Food Be Labeled?

Scott Campbell, a trend-setting chef in Manhattan, likes his food organic. He makes organic baby food for his upscale clientele and that's why, he says, he wants nothing to do with genetically modified food, reports CBS News' Wyatt Andrews.

"This is something you are ingesting, it's not that you can says it's a lemon and I can return it," Campbell said. He is resisting what has to be the quietest high-tech revolution in America - genetically modified agriculture.

Right now, about half the corn and soybeans grown in America has been genetically altered. Gene spliced with different organisms like bacteria or viruses, usually to make the plants resistant to pests, so farmers use fewer chemicals. It means that at the supermarket, genetically altered ingredients are already in products like cereals, snack foods and meat.

So how was agriculture revolutionized and no one knew? Basically, the biotech industry and the federal government decided this man-made food is the same as naturally grown food. So, there is no consumer notice required and no label necessary for genetically engineered food.

"There are unknown risks to these foods," says Andrew Kimbrell. He is part of a team of public-interest lawyers suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over the no-label decision. Inside the FDA, he says, there are critical concerns about genetically modified food.

"There are internal scientists saying there could be new poisons. They talk about new allergens. They talk about poor nutrition," Kimbrell says. "Their advice was not taken, so the American consumer has become the guinea pig for these foods."

Most scientists had dismissed those concerns until this spring, when the monarch butterflies died. Cornell University researcher John Losey found that pollen from a genetically modified plant, Bt corn, killed monarch caterpillars.

Bt corn is designed to kill worms and millions of acres of it are planted every year. The question now is, what else might the Bt gene do to the environment? "These are genetic combinations that we have never seen before, that are completely novel and so you when you have that you have to know there are things that are going to happen you just can't predict," Losey says.

No one says you'll get sick if you eat this food now, but the concern is that some bad batch of altered plants in the future could become toxic. The industry response? "Well, a meteor could hit the earth tomorrow," replies Val Giddings.

Giddings, a scientist for the biotech trade group representing companies like DuPont and Monsanto, says the concern over this food is overblown. You can give corn the gene for pest resistance, he says, and it's still just corn.

Giddings dismissed the notion that the new technology might create mutant plants. "No foods in the history of humanity have been subjected to more scrutiny before their introduction to consumers than these," he says.
But at Scott Campbell's restaurant, some customers ask, if this food is so safe, why not label it? "It's important to label," says one diner. "I think consumers should make a decision whether or not they want to purchase something."

In the genetically altered future are promises of improved nutrition, greater yields for farmers and huge reductions in pesticides. Yet the industry's reluctance to use labels may already be eroding consumer confidence in this brave new world.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed