A SPAT IS simmering between Europe and the United States over genetically modified food. European consumers have been demonstrating against, and their governments refusing to import, American crops and seed varieties altered by biotechnology, among them pest-resistant strains of corn and soybeans. The protests ostensibly respond to the possible danger posed by such "Frankenfoods" to human health or the food chain. Scientific studies offer only the slimmest of rationales for any such worry -- many reputable scientists say no rationale whatever -- but factors other than science are in play.

One such factor, as usual in transatlantic food fights, is protectionism; the World Trade Organization just ruled that a European attempt to ban hormone-treated American beef fits in this category. Another factor is a general European distrust, sharper than here, of genetic engineering and of government assurances about the safety of the food supply -- understandable enough after scandals ranging from mad cow disease to smelly Coca-Cola.

Rational or not, this mix of jitters is driving policy: The European Commission has all but stopped approving specific genetically modified foods for import, and it has passed a law requiring warning labels on any food containing genetically modified material.

U.S. producers oppose labels, which are not required on genetically engineered foods domestically. The Food and Drug Administration gave the first such product, a bioengineered "Flavr Savr" tomato, a clean bill of health in 1994 and declined to require its labeling in the absence of a "substantive difference" from ordinary tomatoes. Europeans have also delayed writing regulations for their labeling law, effectively blocking its use.

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman took note of this reality in a speech Tuesday announcing a series of confidence-building measures in the scientific review of these new products. He also urged U.S. producers to consider labels of some kind, though they're not required -- all to ease the concerns of consumers and speed bioengineered substances to market.

It's the right approach. Trade wars can be fought with policy, but consumer jitters, however unscientific, are better addressed than merely denounced. That's especially true when they involve what goes on people's plates and into their mouths.