Food safety activists picket Carson City store

Food safety activists picketed and gathered signatures for a petition Wednesday at the Carson City Safeway to protest the U.S. food industry's sale of products containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Safeway is one of the "Frankenfoods Fifteen," companies challenged by activists to provide consumers with written assurances that their products do not contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Safeway Assistant Manager Spencer Barr said he didn't know about Safeway policy on genetically engineered food and referred questions to Safeway offices in Pleasanton, Calif. Officials there did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Food industry companies maintain genetically engineered foods are safe and give farmers and consumers stronger, more abundant and more flavorful food sources than with organic or traditional production techniques.

But these "superfoods" aren't labeled for consumers, and there hasn't been enough independent testing of their health or environmental effects, said Dan Geary, spokesman for the National Environmental Trust's Nevada organizing project. The Trust helped put together the Carson City protest, part of the kickoff of a national campaign "to take genetically engineered ingredients off American grocery store shelves until they are fully tested and labeled."

The Trust is a member of the Genetically Engineered Food Alert, a coalition of consumer, environmental and religious organizations that singled out Campbell Soup Co. Wednesday for using genetically engineered ingredients. The Alert planned actions for Wednesday in about 20 cities in addition to Carson City.

Geary said the Food and Drug Administration has all but abdicated its testing and labeling responsibilities with regard to genetic foods, giving "an entire group of food additives an across-the-board loophole to avoid safety testing." Geary explained that genetic engineering isn't the same as cross-breeding plants, a common agricultural technique.

The genetic engineering process combines "the genes of non-related species utilizing viruses, antibiotic-resistant genes and bacteria," he said, and "introduces microorganisms into the food supply that human beings were never meant to consume."

Members of the Food Alert coalition are concerned that gene splicing will increase consumers' risks of cancer, lead to new food allergies and create strains of "superbugs" that antibiotics can't treat.

They are also concerned that genetically altered plants and animals could reduce soil fertility or harm or replace naturally occurring species.

Geary said that given these risks, it's especially troubling that Campbell's, Kellogg's and other food industry titans sell foods in anti-biotech Europe that haven't been tinkered with genetically - all the while reserving modified products for the home market.

"Right now biotech companies are conducting a nationwide experiment on U.S. consumers," Geary said. "People have a right to know when food contains genetically engineered ingredients," he continued, citing a CNN/Time magazine poll last year showing 81 percent of Americans want "genetically engineered foods labeled as such."

Representatives of Kellogg's and Campbell's dismissed the protests.

''Kellogg's has a 94-year legacy of making healthful and nutritious food and wouldn't compromise that,'' spokeswoman Chris Ervin said.

''Campbell's has a 130-year record of delivering high-quality food all over the world. All the food produced by Campbell Food Co. is safe and meets federal requirements, including labeling,'' said spokesman John Faulkner.

Geary said "the biotechnology industry predicts that almost 100 percent of U.S. food and fiber will be genetically engineered within five to 10 years."

While some Safeway shoppers said they didn't really know or care about genetically manipulated ingredients, others were less sanguine.

"I'm concerned about what's in food," said Maureen Hamtak of Carson City. "I like to know what I'm buying."

Geary realizes much of what food advocates are saying might seem overstated or alarmist to consumers. But he believes it's better to be safe than sorry.

"The National Environmental Trust has offered a blueprint of safety testing to the FDA. There are times when the government overregulates, but this is one time when the government needs to get more involved."


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