Gateway Green Alliance/Green Party of St. Louis

December 1999 Compost-Dispatch

FDA Hearings on Biotech Put Public Last

by Tammy Shea, Gateway Green Alliance

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held the first of three forums on biotechnology in Chicago. It is the agency's first attempt to seek public input regarding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food. But rather than give the public time to express concerns about the use of GMOs in food and participate in the dialogue, the public was the last to be heard and with comments limited to near sound-bite length.

Attending the day long meeting was frustrating It was clear that their goal was not to provide the public with a place at the table but to force the public to sit through prepared, well rehearsed presentations conveying messages of assurances.

The Metcalf Federal Building in downtown Chicago was the scene for the FDA to exercise complete control of the program and patrons. First, the announcement of the public forums was rushed as was the time allowed to register. Just four weeks to plan on attending, register with the FDA, and make travel and accommodation plans. This just half the time usually allowed for other FDA events according to officials in Chicago. They claim the the D.C. office was responsible for that decision.

Even with such short notice, it wasnÕt long before the FDA realized that they had underestimated the level of participation from the public and over 400 people had responded. Recognizing that the public was going to outnumber the agency, FDA immediately arranged to secure another location for the "majority" of the registrants to be housed many blocks away. They were allowed to watch the proceedings via televised remote.

The Metcalf Federal Building was heavily guarded and the meeting began with a long introduction by FDA officials explaining how thorough the agency is at "consulting" with companies that want to introduce food crops that are genetically altered. Despite the fact that these consultations are entirely voluntary, the public is supposed to be assured that the process is completely protective of public safety. We were treated to a round of slides that were hand-selected details that explained very little.

Then a panel of participants were introduced, which consisted of six individuals. The focus of their comments were on scientific, safety, and regulatory issues. The majority was clearly on the side of industry. Industry representatives and supporters of GM food reminded us often that FDA regulations used to assess safety of GM food are "adequate." We heard that the current state of concern was mostly due to junk science and that the FDA should do more to counter opposing studies that point to a problem with GM crops and food.

One panelist, Dr. Ralph Hardy, President of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Inc. shocked the audience by suggesting that the FDA should have responded more forcefully to the release of the Cornell University study that documented damage to the monarch butterfly from pollen of Bt corn. He maintained that the agency could have "killed the media" around the release of the report had they acted sooner. Is it really the job of the FDA to kill media that may prove troublesome to an industry they are empowered to regulate?

Charles Margulis of Greenpeace and Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest represented the voice of concern about the use of GM crops and support for labels.

Mr. Margulis reminded FDA officials that not mandating GM food to be safety tested and relying on data provided by the industries was a serious problem. He cited that the studies prepared by Monsanto to demonstrate the safety of Roundup Ready soybean were conducted on beans that had not been sprayed. The Roundup Ready soybean variety has a gene inserted to the DNA of the plant to provide resistance to repeated applications of Monsanto's top selling herbicide, RoundUp. Clearly the unsprayed beans do not represent the intended use scenario.

At noon the meeting broke for lunch and a crowd gathered a few blocks away to protest the relationship between FDA and Monsanto. Hundreds of activists gathered to hear a variety of speakers that included Dr. Samuel Epstein. Dr. Epstein spoke of the problem of having former employees of Monsanto working at the FDA during the time recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) was receiving approval from that agency. Subsequent research has revealed that FDA relied on a summary of health studies done by Monsanto, which excluded important information about the negative side effects. Others demanded a ban on further planting of GM crops until safety test have been conducted. The rally continued even as the FDA hearings resumed.

After lunch we sat through another stacked panel. This time the subject was labels for GM food, of which there are none. The industry does not want any labels and claims that it will only serve to confuse the poor consumer. So says Dr. Michael Phillips of Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) an industry front group for several hundred biotechnology corporations. But another panel member, Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor and Chair, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, was careful to remind everyone that it was her prediction several years ago, with the introduction of Monsanto's rBGH, that the only route to public acceptance of GM food is through labels.

Dr. Edward Groth III, of the Consumers Union made important points about the treatment of consumer concern and opposition by the agency and the industry. He believes the approach has been largely one of public relations. The realization that the consumers have concerns has deployed massive PR campaigns to soften the image and dumb down the public, not to address the science behind the claims of potential harm. He addressed the labeling issue by saying that a simple statement like "contains genetically modified products" is very clear and should not be any more complicated than that. The audience agreed.

Finally the public part of the public forum. It was now close to 3:00 p.m. The important media had already left along with most of the panelists. It is made very clear that we are not to take more than our allotted 2 minutes. We are lined up like cattle in the middle of the aisle as to save time, and we begin our moment of participation. There are 84 registered speakers in number seats to remind us of our place in line.

Many speakers were representatives of nonprofit and consumer organizations. But this segment of the forum was not limited to just the the public and public interest groups. Again, industry was well represented. Monsanto, Pioneer Seed , Novartis, and other pro GM lobbies were all given time to spout more rhetoric. In the end, FDA appeared very proud of themselves. They came, they controlled, and it was all over by 5 o'clock. The rest of us left knowing the debate is just getting started and look forward to meeting again in less monitored surroundings.

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