The American Medical Association called for mandatory pre-market safety testing of genetically engineered foods as part of a revised policy voted on at the AMA's meeting in Chicago Tuesday.
Currently biotech companies are simply encouraged to engage in a voluntary safety consultation with the Food and Drug Administration before releasing a product onto the market.
Some activists concerned about foods made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, had hoped the association would have gone so far as to support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. But some still view the policy change as a major breakthrough.
"We applaud the AMA for taking the lead to help ensure a safe and adequate food supply," said Anne Dietrich of the Truth In Labeling Campaign, which advocates labeling of genetically engineered foods. When Monsanto Co., the world's largest biotech seed company, testified Sunday at the AMA committee hearing on the policy, its representative did not raise any objections to the mandatory safety assessment provision.
On Tuesday, however, Monsanto spokesman Tom Helscher would not say whether or not the company supports mandatory pre-market testing, only that the current voluntary consultation process "is working," he wrote to the Tribune. "All of Monsanto's biotech products, and to our knowledge all those of other companies, go through the FDA consultation process, which provides a stringent safety assessment of biotech crops before they are placed on the market."
The AMA's Dr. Patrice Harris said the testing provision was aimed at addressing public interests and ensuring public health.
"Recognizing the public's interest in the safety of bioengineered foods, the new policy also supports mandatory FDA pre-market systemic safety assessments of these foods as a preventive measure to ensure the health of the public," Harris said in a statement. "We also urge the FDA to remain alert to new data on the health consequences of bioengineered foods."
Tuesday afternoon FDA officials would not say whether the department supported mandatory testing. "New foods have an obligation under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act to ensure that the foods they offer consumers are safe and in compliance with applicable legal requirements," the agency said. "In meeting their legal obligation, firms do conduct premarket safety testing."
The agency was referring to testing manufacturers commission for their own use. Critics, however, argue that independent testing overseen by regulatory authorities often produces different results than testing paid for by the manufacturer.
After the policy was announced Tuesday, Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen released a statement saying: “We wholeheartedly commend AMA for coming out in support of mandatory pre-market safety assessment of (genetically engineered) foods, but are disappointed that AMA did not also support mandatory labeling. ... Studies in the scientific literature have suggested that
Just Label It, the national campaign for the labeling of genetically engineered foods (www.justlabelit.org), issued a statement saying “just the fact that the AMA even considered this measure is a significant win for the vast majority (91%) of Americans (see the Mellman Poll findings) who believe they have the right to know about the foods they eat and feed their families -- a fundamental right already enjoyed by citizens in more than 50 countries worldwide, including all of Europe, Japan, Russia and China.”
The policy change happens as nearly 1 million petitioners await an FDA response on labeling genetically engineered foods and just five months before Californians vote on a ballot initiative to require mandatory labeling in the state.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents hundreds of the nation's biggest food companies, released a statement Wednesday that focused not on the recent changes to the AMA resolution but rather on what hadn't changed: the AMA's continued stance that labeling genetically engineered foods is unnecessary because it considers them not to be materially different from other kinds of food.
"We commend the American Medical Association's House of Delegates for its vote in support of the continued use of genetically engineered ingredients in the food supply," the statement said.