WASHINGTON -- Federal food regulators announced yesterday a step toward guarding against genetic engineering experiments that could contaminate corn, grain or other crops.
The Food and Drug Administration advised companies testing bioengineered plants to report their work first and vouch for its safety. The agency said it wants to make sure commercial crops aren't threatened by cross-pollination or commingling of seeds during the testing of experimental plants.
The announcement comes amid heightened expectations that advances in genetics will lead over the next decade to more research and development of bioengineered crops. Yet the promise has been tempered by concerns among consumers, food processors and grocery manufacturers that an allergen or toxin could inadvertently enter the food supply.
Many European countries would likely block imports of American food if it contained genetically modified substances.
Critics of genetically engineered plants have called on the government to conduct mandatory testing and certify that products are safe before allowing their sale.
Michael Fernandez, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, called the voluntary guidelines a "small step in the right direction." But he doubted it would assuage all concerns that an allergen or toxin could be accidentally introduced into commercial food supplies during testing.
The Food Products Association and Grocery Manufacturers Association greeted the announcement positively and cautiously, saying more needed to be done.
Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, criticized the action for not requiring testing and assuming contamination would be slight.
"It is designed to make it look like there is regulation ... when in fact it's just a green light to allow contamination of food with these untested substances," he said in an interview.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization praised the FDA for "ensuring food safety" while recognizing that accidents with experimental proteins are "natural."
More than 47,000 field tests involving genetically engineered crops were performed in the United States from 1987 to 2004, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
In its guidelines, the FDA recommends - but does not require - that companies file a report attesting to the harmlessness of any bioengineered protein they intend to test.
After reviewing the reports, the FDA will either raise questions about the possible impact on food safety or say it is satisfied. The agency itself will not draw a conclusion.
The action does not cover a large supply of genetically modified plants: crops, such as cotton, made to resist insects. It also doesn't cover plants grown for pharmaceutical use.
The White House requested the guidelines in 2002, the year that corn genetically engineered to produce pharmaceuticals was inadvertently mixed with soybeans in Nebraska and corn in Iowa after field testing. The soybeans and corn were destroyed before they could enter the food supply. ProdiGene, the Texas company that tested the genetically engineered corn, paid a $3 million fine.