Britain's premier medical association yesterday joined the European fracas over genetically engineered foods by saying that foods harboring new genes should be labeled as such so consumers can choose to avoid them until they're proven safe.

In a strongly worded report that immediately increased trade tensions with the United States, the British Medical Association also called for gene-altered crops to be processed separately from conventional crops, rather than mixed together as is done today in the United States, so that any health effects that may eventually turn up will be traceable to the products that caused them.

If growers in the United States or other countries continue to refuse to segregate gene-modified products, the association concluded, then Britain should consider banning imports of those foods.

The recommendations prompted a quick negative reaction on Capitol Hill, where congressional leaders have been growing increasingly irritated with Europe's resistance to agricultural biotechnology, a lucrative field dominated by the United States.

Just four days ago a bipartisan group of 36 senators sent a letter to President Clinton urging him to stand up for American agricultural biotechnology at the World Trade Organization and other international forums, including the upcoming G8 summit, to avoid "a looming trade conflict" with Europe.

The 119,000-member British Medical Association represents more than 80 percent of Britain's doctors. It has weighed in before on the issue of genetically engineered crops and foods, but yesterday's report--based on an analysis of current scientific knowledge--contains the strongest warnings yet as to what remains unknown about their environmental and health effects.

The crops contain genes from bacteria and other organisms to make them resistant to weed-killing chemicals and insects. They are being grown on millions of acres in the United States, where regulatory agencies have deemed them safe, but they remain heavily restricted in Europe, where public acceptance has been low.

Concerns about genetically engineered corn have already halted virtually all corn exports from the United States to Europe, costing U.S. farmers about $200 million a year. Exports of American engineered soy worth additional hundreds of millions of dollars are so far being accepted by Europe.

The British report does not assert that engineered foods are dangerous. But it counsels that without proof of safety, the wise course is to proceed more slowly. For example, the new report says, no one knows yet whether the antibiotic resistance genes used to create engineered crops might get passed to bacteria in people's internal organs, leading to the growth of drug-resistant pathogens. Just in case, the group calls upon companies to abandon use of those genes.

That conservative approach contrasts sharply with the Food and Drug Administration's, which has allowed companies to use such genes after a review of the scientific literature concluded that it was unlikely--albeit not impossible--for such problematic gene transfers to occur.

The FDA and other U.S. agencies have made it their policy not to regulate engineered crops or foods differently than conventionally bred products. "We do not have any information that the use of recombinant DNA techniques creates a class of products different in quality or safety," said Jim Maryanski, the FDA's biotechnology coordinator. By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer, Tuesday, May 18, 1999; Page A02

Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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