FDA cannot ensure safety of biotech foods

By Randy Fabi

WASHINGTON, Jan 7 (Reuters) - The Food and Drug Administration cannot guarantee the safety of genetically modified foods because it is unable to obtain all scientific data from biotech companies, a consumer group said on Tuesday.

...... Monsanto Co. ....... declined to provide requested scientific data to the FDA about strains of genetically engineered insect-resistant corn. The Center for Science in the Public Interest

U.S. biotech companies are encouraged, but not required, to submit food safety testing data to federal regulators for review. When the FDA requested additional information, biotech companies complied only half the time, according to an analysis of FDA data by the advocacy group.

"With a legally mandated approval process, the FDA can only review whatever data that a company lets it review," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, the group's science director and author of the report.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which supports biotech crops, said gene-spliced foods currently being marketed appeared to be safe for consumers. However, it said the FDA was "ill-equipped" to assure the safety of more complex biotech foods in the future.

FDA officials were not immediately available for comment.

BIOTECH INDUSTRY DISAGREES

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow Chemical, said its members submit all necessary scientific data requested by the FDA.

Lisa Dry, the trade group's spokeswoman, said if certain information was not given, the FDA has the power to not allow the marketing of a biotech product.

"The FDA has all the authority necessary to collect information from manufacturers and to ensure consumers the food supply is safe," she said.

The industry does support some changes in the regulatory system to ease consumer concerns, including requiring companies submit more detailed testing information.

The United States is the world's largest producer of crops that are genetically modified to make them resistant to pests, or to withstand herbicides used to kill nearby weeds.

Some U.S. trading partners, especially from Europe and southern Africa, have imposed strict rules on genetically modified crops due to concerns that they may be toxic and cause allergies. The United States strongly disputes these claims.

The FDA's stamp of approval on biotech foods are key to consumer acceptance, both advocates and critics say.

The report also found gaps in the scientific data provided to the FDA by biotech companies.

"We found that biotech companies weren't always performing the right tests to look for potentially dangerous compounds, including allergens," Gurian-Sherman said.

The center's concerns were presented on Tuesday before a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which is studying the unintended health effects of biotech foods. The panel's conclusions will be presented to the FDA and the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommended the FDA require biotech companies submit more detailed testing information and obtain federal approval before marketing their product.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, is expected to introduce legislation later this year that would give the FDA this authority, the consumer group said.

Concerns about biotech foods grabbed headlines two years ago when banned StarLink corn was found to have entered the U.S. food chain, sparking massive recalls of hundreds of corn products from grocery store shelves across the country.

Last month, the variety was found in a U.S. corn shipment bound for Japan's food supply.