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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 04:30 GMT

World: Americas

US begins GM food debate

Campaign launched for "the consumer's right to know what they are eating"

By Washington correspondent Philippa Thomas

The debate over the safety of GM foods that has been raging for months in Britain is finally taking off in the country where most genetically modified crops are grown - the United States.

Philippa Thomas: "Confusion about GM products"
A Democratic congressman on Wednesday launched the first bill to call for GM food to be labelled.

Dennis Kucinich introduced a new bill into Congress, the Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know act, calling for compulsory labelling on all affected products.

Need to know

"There is a huge arrogance involved where people think they can just manipulate the stuff of life and sell it. That's why we need to slow this down and let the consumers know what they're eating," says congressman Kucinich.

[ image: A quarter of the US corn crop is grown from GM seeds.]
A quarter of the US corn crop is grown from GM seeds.
Four Republicans joined 16 Democrats in sponsoring the bill, which is however thought to have little chance of success.

Food industry groups adamantly oppose mandatory labels on products containing GM ingredients.

"A policy that raises unwarranted suspicion of foods that are considered safe by the federal government could lead to the very kind of consumer confusion that labels are designed to prevent," said Lisa Katic, director of science policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Most American consumers eat genetically modified foods every day, whether wheat, corn, soybeans, cheese or tomatoes.

Thirty-five per cent of the soyabean harvest and a quarter of the US corn crop is grown from genetically engineered seed.

But ask US consumers how much they know about the new biotechnology and many will say they've never even heard of it.

Picking up on British outrage

They're mystified by British outrage over the new foodstuffs and so far have tended to take the authorities' word for it that there's no risk to human health.

The congressman admits he's fighting an uphill battle to raise consumer concern, but he believes that a major debate may be only just beginning.

Next week the government's Food and Drug Administration will hold its first open hearings on the safety of GM food.

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