European Union environment ministers today effectively suspended regulatory approval of genetically modified crops, providing another reminder of the differences dividing scientific opinion in Europe and the United States over whether genetically engineered foodstuffs are a health risk.

Today's action did little to change the status quo. For more than a year, the EU has issued no permits to grow or sell genetically modified plants. The decision made by the ministers in Luxembourg makes it likely none will be approved for several more years.

European consumers, already deeply suspicious of genetic tinkering with food, have been hit in the last few weeks with a rash of food scares. Most recently, sales of Coca-Cola were suspended in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France after several hundred people became ill.

At the same time, the EU is resisting rulings by the World Trade Organization requiring it to admit imports of American beef treated with hormones. The United States is likely to go ahead with WTO-authorized trade retaliation in mid-July.

American and European companies want to bring to market seeds and crops that through genetic modification are resistant to certain types of insects, for example, or specific weed killers. In the United States, 40 percent of the soybean crop, 33 percent of the cotton crop and 25 percent of the corn crop is modified. In Europe, approval has been granted for a few genetically modified crops, including strains of cotton, corn and soybeans. However, Luxembourg and Austria have banned imports of modified corn and France and Italy do not allow planting it.