CLARIFICATION--A WORD WAS MISSING FROM AN ARTICLE SUNDAY ABOUT GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOOD. THE STORY SAID ALL 44 GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS THAT HAVE WON MARKETING APPROVAL FROM THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION HAD DONE SO WITHOUT EXTENSIVE SAFETY TESTING BECAUSE THE FDA HAD ACCEPTED THE INDUSTRY'S CLAIMS THAT THEY WERE SUBSTANTIALLY EQUIVALENT TO CONVENTIONAL FOOD. THE NEXT SENTENCE SHOULD HAVE READ THAT ACTIVISTS CLAIM THAT IS "ILLEGAL" BECAUSE THE FOOD, DRUG AND COSSMETIC ACT DEMANDS SAFETY TESTING ON ALL NEW ADDITIVES NOT GENERALLY RECOGNIZED AS SAFE. (PUBLISHED 08/17/99)

Food is more thoroughly labeled than ever. When shoppers go to the grocery store, they can tell at a glance how much salt, sugar, fiber, fat and selected nutrients each item contains.

But labels do not disclose perhaps the most controversial change in the nature of food these days: the addition of genes from unrelated organisms through genetic engineering.

Now, spurred by a debate over possible health and environmental risks from gene-altered foods in Europe, where labeling rules are already in force, some Americans are starting to call for such labels here as well.

It is a demand that the food industry desperately hopes will go away. But many experts believe that the labeling issue will be the battleground on which the war over engineered food will be fought.

"Labeling is absolutely a critical acid test issue for the U.S. biotech food industry," said Charles Benbrook, a consultant on biotechnology for Consumers Union and a former executive director of the National Research Council's board on agriculture, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Until recently, no one in the United States seemed to care whether gene-modified food was labeled. But that's changing.

Last summer, two consumer groups sued the Food and Drug Administration, claiming that the agency's failure to institute a labeling regimen for gene-altered food is in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The law demands that food additives not "generally recognized as safe" be labeled. This spring, activists gathered a half-million signatures calling for labeling of gene-altered food and submitted them to Congress and other officials.

Most food processors and retailers are opposed. They note that U.S. regulators have deemed gene-altered food safe, and they warn that labels could cost consumers millions of dollars.

Most important, they say, mandatory labels would wrongly imply that safety or nutritional value has been compromised in these foods, undermining confidence in the high-tech varieties that producers claim will ultimately help feed the world's growing population.

"The concern," said Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, "is that a label would be seen as a stigma, like a skull and crossbones."

The industry is also wary of labels saying "free of genetically engineered ingredients," because such labels might imply superiority, as in "fat free." The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) recently announced that it and other groups would initiate a $1 million advertising and educational campaign to counter the nascent U.S. anti-biotech and pro-labeling movements.

"We are trying to effectively reach out so what has happened in certain European countries does not happen here," said GMA spokesman Gene Grabowski. "In our view a lot of clamor and misinformation and hysteria has been allowed to overwhelm reasonable debate on this issue."

The industry's position raises the difficult question of whether there are appropriate limits to the amount of information that should be made available to consumers and, if so, who should decide them. The FDA and the food industry say labels should be reserved for relevant, "science-based" information. But a number of consumers believe that science should not be the sole criterion.

Some orthodox rabbis, for example, say their strict dietary laws require them to know when a foreign gene -- say, a pig gene -- has been spliced into their food. (No pig genes have been put into crops, but one has been experimentally engineered into salmon to accelerate growth.)

Other shoppers are concerned about the ecological risks that some scientists have said gene-altered agriculture poses. They don't want their purchasing dollars to support biotech agriculture, but they find the "organic" niche too limited.

Biotech labeling is not unprecedented in this country. In 1993, Ben & Jerry's triggered a three-year legal battle by labeling its products as containing milk only from cows raised free of a genetically engineered hormone that boosts milk production.

"People can say `dolphin-free tuna' and `stone-ground wheat,' " said Liz Bankowski, a senior director for the company in South Burlington, Vt. "We felt strongly that people have the right to know how their milk is produced."

After tangling with federal and state regulators over the issue, Ben & Jerry's won the right to keep the label as long as it is accompanied by a disclaimer saying the FDA considers the milk equivalent to conventional milk, and that in any case there is no known way of testing milk to confirm whether it is really free of the offending hormone.

That problem of being able to back up a claim that a food either contains or does not contain genetically engineered ingredients has plagued regulators in the European Union, where a law went into effect in September saying all gene-modified foods must be labeled.

The European law did not specify how much gene-altered material must be present to trigger a label. Now EU ministers are having to negotiate whether a food can avoid the label if it has less than, say, 1 percent engineered ingredients. They must also decide whether "1 percent" means 1 percent of the whole product or 1 percent of the ingredient in question.

Complicating the issue, altered DNA or proteins can disappear during processing, so products can test negative despite their gene-altered origins. At the same time, even a sprinkling of engineered cornmeal or soy flour from a previous shipment can make an entire grain silo or rail car of otherwise unengineered food test falsely positive as engineered.

Melodi Nelson has a good sense of what that can mean. Last fall, testers in Europe detected traces of genetically engineered corn in organic corn chips made by her company, Prima Terra Inc. of Hudson, Wis. Some of the corn supplied to Prima Terra from a certified organic supplier was contaminated, it turned out, with minuscule amounts of gene-altered corn, perhaps because a few grains of engineered pollen blew into the organic grower's fields from a neighboring farm. The positive test forced Prima Terra to recall 87,000 bags of chips valued at $147,000. "It broke my heart," she said.

What do consumers really want? Consumer groups cite studies indicating that 80 to 90 percent of Americans think gene-altered food ought to be marked, and 50 to 60 percent say they would choose nonengineered food if they could. But other studies have found that those numbers drop precipitously when people are given additional information, such as that the FDA has deemed the food safe and nutritious.

"In focus groups, consumers say, `Tell us if there is something meaningful or different or good or bad,' " said Tom Hoban, a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, who has done research on biotech labels. "Consumers are saying, `I have enough food anxiety, and phew, I don't want to worry about something else unless I have to.' "

Consumers have also balked when told labeling may significantly increase the cost of the food. Grocery groups have not made specific cost estimates but argue that labeling would entail creating expensive separate transportation and processing streams for engineered and nonengineered foods.

Yet quietly, some of America's largest agricultural corporations have begun to do just that. In June, Archer Daniels Midland Co., the giant commodities processor and merchandiser, said it would separate U.S.-grown nonengineered crops for export to European countries. Several large American growers have begun using gene-testing companies to certify food as free of foreign DNA.

And as confident as American companies say they are about the safety of gene-altered food, fear of public rejection has them on the defensive. Last month, when Greenpeace announced that one kind of Gerber baby food contained gene-altered ingredients, the company quickly announced it would find a supplier that could guarantee nonengineered ingredients.