It's difficult not to sympathize with our European cousins in their resistance to "Frankenstein foods." That's the term they apply to foods in which genes have been added, deleted or modified to make them cheaper to produce or to prolong their freshness.
The real issue is political, rather than medical or scientific. Basically, it comes down to the people's right to know what they're eating, even if their notions on that matter are demonstrably nonsensical to scientists and government regulators. In most cases, genetically modified foods are unrecognizable because the changes are hidden in the genes and the manufacturers have successfully fought off labeling requirements as invitations to hysterical boycotts.
Genetically modified foods are completely safe, according to the producers, predominantly American firms, which, after fairly smooth sailing on the domestic market, are stunned by the hostile European reaction. No reliable evidence of harm has come to light, apart from reported difficulties for Monarch butterflies in genetically modified crop fields. A scare about modified potatoes in Britain has been rejected as schlock science by an authoritative independent review.
About half of the huge U.S. soybean crop is genetically modified, and nothing Frankensteinian has yet been reported. Without evidence of harm to humans, the warnings of danger remain speculative and must be viewed against the great potential of genetic engineering for raising agricultural productivity.
But the manufacturers' assurances of safety are more syrup than science. Scarcely any research was conducted on human effects prior to marketing of the products, and monitoring for possible long-term consequences is difficult and practically nonexistent.
While European supermarket chains, responding to consumer sentiment, are boycotting genetically modified foods, little sales resistance had arisen in the United States, despite a recent survey that found 81 percent of Americans favor mandatory labeling. The trans-Atlantic difference may be that Americans are accustomed to a steady stream of novel products from a highly competitive food industry, whereas Europeans tend to be more traditional about what they eat.
The U.S. acceptance may also reflect confidence in the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture. For all the criticism these agencies receive, the American public trusts them on food safety, which is not the case with their many European counterparts. After a flurry of negative publicity, bovine growth hormone, which raises cows' milk production, was approved by the FDA in 1993 and has since attracted little notice in the United States, despite extensive use. But its use has been banned in most European countries and elsewhere, too. With the milk hormone, as well as with other genetically modified products, the FDA says that mandatory labeling is not required because genetic modifications do not significantly change the food.
Essentially the regulators are telling us that, as far as science can tell, it's all in the head of the consumer. Therefore, why burden manufacturers with a labeling requirement that can discourage sales? The policy reflects deep respect for science, and it calms the fears of the biotechnology industry, which acknowledges generous government support for research -- with generous campaign contributions to both political parties. Nonetheless, the no-labeling policy misuses the authority of science in trampling over the right to know what you're eating.
For religious reasons, many Jews and Muslims refuse to eat pork. To guide them in their preference, packaged products indicate the presence of pork, though there is no scientific evidence that it is unwholesome. Package labels also assist vegetarians, as well as persons who are sensitive to particular foods, or who think they are.
Scientists are probably right when they insist there's nothing to worry about in genetically modified foods. But in this matter, as well as others, the people have a right to be informed and to arrive at the wrong conclusion. Science can serve as a guide, but it shouldn't perform as a bully.
Daniel S. Greenberg is a science writer.