CAPE COD, Massachusetts -- Novartis, one of the world's leading producers of genetically engineered seeds, has been phasing out genetically engineered ingredients in its food products worldwide for over a year.
Responding to a statement issued by environmental group Greenpeace International yesterday, Novartis Consumer Health U.S. vice president Sheldon Jones told ENS there is nothing new about the company's stand on genetically engineered food.
Greenpeace cited a letter sent by Novartis' European Consumer Health department as evidence the company had stopped producing food containing genetically engineered ingredients in its own brands on June 30.
In particular, the letter stated production of the candy bar Cereal Chocosoja had been stopped because Novartis could not guarantee its non-GM quality.
"The first I knew about this Greenpeace business was when NBC called me last night," said Jones, speaking from a mobile phone on a beach in Cape Cod. "I was stunned."
"Months ago, over a year ago in fact, Novartis decided that wherever possible it would try to eliminate genetically enhanced ingredients from its products, like baby food and nutritional products."
Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, Novartis operates through 275 affiliates in 142 countries worldwide, and is behind household names such as Gerber baby food and Maalox.
"The decision was not taken because we think GM technology is unsafe, on the contrary, we are convinced of its safety. But we did not want names like Gerber thrown about in the debate. It is a response to customer concerns and with baby food in particular there are highly sensitive issues involved," Jones said.
Jones said the company had not announced the decision officially because it did not want to use it as a marketing ploy. "We refuse to say we are GMO [genetically modified organism] free because cross pollination makes it highly unlikely that any sizeable food producer could be," said Jones.
"What Greenpeace said yesterday is not necessarily wrong," said Jones, "it's just not news."
Greenpeace applauded the Novartis' decision, claiming it is the first multinational company to commit to a genetically engineered (GE) free standard in food on a global basis. But it criticized Novartis for continuing to produce and sell genetically modified maize (corn) to farmers.
"Novartis should also recognize the environmental risks its GE agricultural products carry and become consistent in its policy by stopping the production and sale of GE seeds," said Isabelle Meister, Greenpeace International genetic engineering campaigner.
Genetically engineered food made from plants whose gene sequence has been altered for certain qualities, such as resistance to pesticides, or a higher vitamin count, is at the center of a contentious public debate.
Some consumers and environmentalists fear the new technology could pose a threat to human health or to natural varieties of plants.
A typical comment of concern was made by Dr. Vyvyan Howard, expert in infant toxico-pathology at Liverpool University Hospital, in the UK. "Swapping genes between organisms can produce unknown toxic effects and allergies that are most likely to affect children," the doctor said in 1998.
Critics of biotech foods also warn that genetically modified crops growing in the fields possibly can harm wild species by poisoning insects and animals as well as changing the genetic makeup of nearby plants through pollination.
The 15-member European Union (EU) recently proposed an end to a two year moratorium on granting new authorizations for genetically modified crops. Some 18 crops are currently stalled in the EU's authorization procedure, including a Novartis genetically modified maize.
Australia and New Zealand this week joined European countries by approving the labelling of foods containing even the smallest percentage of genetically engineered crops.
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