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Monsanto attempts to promote food, feed safety dialogue with European officials

(July 16, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following is a press release from Monsanto.

ST. LOUIS - Monsanto Company recently hosted a diverse European group at the Chesterfield Village research facility in St. Louis for a tour and greater understanding of biotechnology food and feed safety. The visit to Monsanto was arranged through the company's International Visitors' Program. The delegation of visitors represented government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, scientific institutions, farmers, consumers and journalists from 12 countries that are involved in biotechnology and food safety. Jim Astwood, Monsanto's director of the Product Safety Center, gave a presentation on food and feed safety, supporting the company's commitment to dialogue in the Monsanto Pledge.

The use of plant biotechnology has provoked trade disputes between the United States and the European Union (EU). Issues include the potential environmental effects of transgenic crops and reducing the possible environmental consequences of pesticides through the use of biotechnology. Others are economic issues, such as the reduced costs of crop production through the use of biotech crops and the costs of mainstream agricultural products versus organics.

European consumer concerns also include whether or not to label biotech products, sparked by worries about the use of hormones and antibiotics to speed up growth in beef and chickens and to increase milk production in dairy cattle. The European delegation was particularly interested in animal food safety concerns.

Astwood addressed these concerns and others in his presentation, and focused on U.S. food safety and testing procedures.

In the United States, he said, federal oversight is continuous. Crops and products undergo a nine-step review process, which Astwood dubbed "nine ways to say no." Four federal agencies - the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - weigh in on regulation of biotech products through facility oversight, moving and separating seed, field tests and bioregistration.

The approval process isn't speedy. From product conception to market, the process can take anywhere from 12 to 15 years.

"In 1984, Monsanto started working on Roundup Ready soybeans," he said. "In 1996, we got our first approval."

Astwood gave three examples of food safety in relation to Monsanto. The first is that Monsanto's YieldGard corn boasts a secondary benefit to insect pest control. It cuts the occurrence of fusarium, a fungus that targets corn. "Because there is less insect damage and less opportunistic fungi can grow, you see much, much lower infestation levels compared to non-Bt corn," he said. "As a food safety person, this is extremely exciting because this was a product designed for the farming community, but there are potential health benefits for animals and on the food side."

The second is related to pesticide and herbicide reduction. Roundup Ready corn would drastically cut the use of some herbicides. Use of Bollgard cotton resulted in reduction of insecticide use in the United States, about 2 million pounds worth. Cotton is one of the heaviest pest-associated products in the world.

The third was improving products through dietary enhancements, particularly vitamin A. "Vitamin A deficiency is seen as a very serious problem in a lot of places, particularly in developing countries," he said. "Most of the vitamin A we get is found in the fats of animals. Plants do have beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, but you have to eat a lot more of it." One solution is to enhance beta carotene levels thousands of times in vegetable oils, such as canola or mustard.

The three main factors used in determining food safety, Astwood said, are toxicity, intolerance (such as lactose intolerance) and allergy. The third factor is a major issue for biotech critics, concerned about mixing allergens into food products. He said this concern is easily addressed with careful testing. In addition, from a public policy perspective, he said the transfer of known allergens via biotechnology or any other technology should be avoided.

In the United States, the FDA uses a standard when considering all food safety questions. It follows the stipulation that there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will result from intended uses, under the anticipated uses of consumption, and that biotech food is as safe as material already in the food supply. "Every experiment we do is a comparison between the old product and the new one," he said. This is because no food product, conventionally or biotechnologically bred, is inherently safe.

Asked about the length of food safety assessments versus environmental assessments, Astwood said that food safety has clear endpoints. "There are more unresolved public questions around the environmental side than the food safety side, but this is more than offset by the positive impacts of pesticide reduction and improved environmental sustainability associated with biotechnology."