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Genetically Modified Food: Is It Safe?

Aired September 19, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, questions about bioengineered corn in Taco Bell taco shells raise new concerns about genetically modified food. Should you be afraid to eat it or is it safe?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri and Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich from Ohio.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Just in case you didn't have anything to worry about lately, an environmentalist group called Friends of the Earth have come up with a new hand-wringer. They claim the taco you munch may be dangerous to your health.

It seems that an Iowa testing laboratory called Genetic ID found something wrong with Taco Bell brand taco shells. The lab said a type of bioengineered corn not considered fit for human consumption had found its way into the taco shells. Your friendly federal government sprang into action: Two agencies, the EPA and the FDA plan, a study to determine whether the taco shells should stay on the shelves.

Not to worry, said Kraft foods, the company which distributes Taco Bell shells: It will keep the products on the shelves, at least until further testing.

Of course, more than tacos are at stake. The environmentalists hate genetically modified food, the farmers love it, and on CROSSFIRE, we'll debates it, Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Senator Bond, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

SEN. KIT BOND (R), MISSOURI: Thank you. Good to be with you.

PRESS: As Bob just reported, one independent lab has said that there is an unsafe corn product in this -- in these taco shells sold by Taco Bell. If that is the case, senator, even the possibility of that unsafe product in there, shouldn't they be recalled immediately from shelves?

BOND: Well, first, let's point out that this laboratory has made mistakes before, and as of this afternoon, the Friends of the Earth had refused to turn over the shells for the -- that they had tested to the FDA to confirm it.

Now, the elements that are supposedly in this corn have been tested and the scientific panel could not conclude that they did cause allergies or not.

Certainly, every genetically engineered product that has come to market, knowingly come to market has been tested extensively. If this is a product that has not been approved safe for human consumption, then it ought to be off the market.

All the products we have on the market that are GM, or genetically modified, have gone through the most rigorous scientific testing and found to be no more -- no different from nor more harmful than the food products which they resemble.

PRESS: Well, I understand: The federal government is doing more testing. We just have the report from one lab. But if in fact they confirm that that kind of corn -- called StarLink, right? -- is in this product, doesn't that prove that our federal testing today is woefully inadequate?

BOND: No. No.

PRESS: Well, how did it get here?

BOND: None of the food that you get except GM food goes through the testing. Now, that should have gone through testing.

You get products in the market every day that have not been subjected to the kind of rigorous scientific tests that genetically modified organisms are.

This -- this obviously, if this has been found -- if this is genetically modified and has not been approved, then it ought to be taken off the market.

But I mean -- you eat organic food, and organic food, anybody eating organic food is eight times more likely to suffer from E. coli food poisoning. Organic food is not tested.

PRESS: Just one further quick question. Here's what -- this corn, StarLink, was tested, and here's what Carol Browner had to say about what they found and what they approved it for and what they didn't approve it for.


CAROL BROWNER, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: EPA has not licensed this particular corn product for food use. We have licensed it for feed stock, to feed to animals, but not for human food consumption.


PRESS: And she further said it hasn't been approved for human use because it doesn't break down in the human gut the way it breaks down in the animal gut. It doesn't belong here, senator, does it? And doesn't it shock you that it could end up here without our knowing it?

BOND: If in fact it is. If in fact there is genetically modified corn that is in that taco shell that has not been approved for human consumption, then it ought to be off the market.

But they have -- what the scientific panel is deadlocked on is whether that particular corn is -- does cause an allergy or not, and if there's any uncertainty about it, it ought to be off the market. Simple.

NOVAK: Congressman Kucinich, I have to make an admission, I love tacos. Now, I really love them when they're filled with high cholesterol beef and beans and onions and things. But I'm going take a little bite of this unfilled taco shell.

PRESS: Is there a doctor in the house?

NOVAK: Am I risking my life? Am I going make my wife a widow by eating Taco Bell taco shells?

PRESS: Here, Bob, have another bite?


REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), OHIO: Yo no quiero Taco Bell.


And furthermore, the question is whether or not this product is fit for human consumption, and that's what is being debated, not just here, but at the EPA and at the FDA. And that's where it's appropriately debated.

The concerns about this product reflect a broader debate, and that is, should people have a right to know, just as people have a right to know the ingredients here -- you know, there's a labeling law that was passed years ago after much debate. People want to know what's in the food they eat. And I think people generally would like to know if the food they're eating is genetically engineered. And it would be helpful I think for the consumer to have safety testing for allergenicty, toxicity, antibiotic resistance, unintended side effects.

NOVAK: This laboratory -- I'm not going to make any comment on its validity or not -- but it tested 23 items, as I understand it, food -- corn items. The only item they allegedly found StarLink in was the Taco Bell, and they found it in 1 percent of the products. They claim they found it in 1 percent.

Now, do you think -- do you think on the basis of that that Kraft should have pulled it off the shelves or is Kraft justified?

KUCINICH: Well, I think that if you have a product that is considered by the government not fit for human consumption and shows up on the grocery shelves, if it shows up in any part on the grocery shelves, that ought to be cause for concern. And that's what our concern is about, and that's why we're asking the FDA and the EPA to look at this.

But again, I want to talk about the broader issues. I think it's better to be careful and it's better to be safe than sorry, when you're talking about food that enters the supermarkets, and that's all that our bill for labeling does is, is it advocates give people a choice.

NOVAK: But this is the foot in the door for declaring war against these biotech foods.

KUCINICH: Not at all.

NOVAK: And you know, I think you worry about the -- the sick and hungry Africans, don't you? I worry about them. I'm sure Senator Bond does and you do. I don't know about Bill.

PRESS: No, I don't.

NOVAK: But I want to quote to you from "The Washington Post" of September 11th. Hassan Adamu, the Nigerian minister of agricultural and rural development of this new clean Nigerian government, and he said...


He said -- quote -- "... scientific evidence disproves their claims that enhanced crops are anything but safe. If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will suffer and possibly die." End quote.

So are you going to join with the Friends of the Earth in putting to death millions of Africans?

KUCINICH: I don't think -- I think that every person who's watching this program is concerned about people starving anywhere or people who are not adequately fed. We have people in the United States who aren't adequately fed as well. The world is awash with food, but there are still hungry people, and the causes of people not having adequate food are many, including war, including maldistribution of food resources, including poverty, economic hardship.

So you know, we all know that it is a serious problem about feeding the world, but I wouldn't say that the solution to hunger in the world is the biotechnology. And I'm not saying that it isn't. What I am saying is label this food and safety test it and then let people make their own choices.

PRESS: Senator, here's my fear. My fear is that some unsuspecting person, you know, might just bite into one of these things not knowing what's in it and you never know what's going to happen to him.

Let me just give you, for example, one unsuspecting person that we heard from today on an afternoon talk show, if you just might look at this little clip please. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "OPRAH")

OPRAH WINFREY, HOST: Favorite fast food item?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Favorite fast food item? Taco.


PRESS: Now, my -- have you warned your candidate yet about the Taco Bell taco shells?

BOND: If there were anything to warn you about, if there were anything to warn him about, then that product should be taken off the market.

PRESS: But what about...

BOND: The problem -- wait a minute. We're talking about -- we're talking about some broad issues that I think are very important to lay on the table. As the Nigerian minister of agriculture and rural development has said, biotechnology does offer the hope that this world needs to feed the hungry. There have been -- there has been the development by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines of vitamin A, the golden rice, by adding a beta- carotene gene to provide vitamin A.

We have the possibility of reducing the millions of deaths from starving children in the Third World, and the half-a-million that are blinded each year because of vitamin A deficiency.

PRESS: I'll tell you what...

BOND: Biotechnology is a tremendous hope for them and for us as well.

PRESS: I'm going to -- I'm going to give you a break. I'm not totally against biotech foods. I don't think Dennis is either. But his suggestion is -- and his suggestion is -- that we ought to know what we are eating. It ought to be added to the label. So surely, Senator, you would support -- like they have in Europe -- labeling on all GMO, genetically modified foods, correct?

BOND: I strongly support labeling any food that is different, that any food that has something in it that is not in the other food. For example, if there is an allergen in food. Food -- the food that we eat has been developed by crossbreeding, by hybridization over the years. Corn is...

PRESS: How about all genetically modified foods?

BOND: Only if it is different. And that's what -- that's what the standard is now. Our FDA, our EPA, our USDA, which have, according to the scientists -- and as I look around the room, I would like to think that the four of us are well educated -- but I don't believe that any of us has a Ph.D. in microbiology or... KUCINICH: I have a voting card. That's all I need.


BOND: Well, that's good. But to make a scientific statement, we have to rely on the scientists.

PRESS: All right, I'll tell you what. Take another bite of the taco. We are going take a break. And as we do, we want to know from our viewers: Would you knowingly eat food that you -- that was genetically engineered?

Here's how you can tell us. You can vote at Click on and vote. We'll tell you the results at the end of the show.

When we come back, we're going to ask our guests, what do consumers think about these genetically modified foods, anyway? Will they eat them?


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The battle over genetically modified foods has sparked riots in Western Europe, but scarcely a ripple of protest here in the United States until now -- maybe -- when consumer groups accused Taco Bell of selling taco shells that may be unsafe for human consumption. So what's the answer: more science, more regulation or just clear labels?

That's our debate tonight with two experts from Capitol Hill: Senator Kit Bond, Republican from Missouri, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Democrat from Ohio -- Bob.

NOVAK: Congressman Kucinich, you're a very skilled and accomplished party politician. I first met you when you were mayor of Cleveland. How old were you when you were elected mayor of Cleveland?

KUCINICH: Thirty-one.

NOVAK: Thirty-one. And you've been -- you've now been elected to Congress several times. So you know that the people are always right. And I just want to read to you the poll numbers from a Gallup poll taken about a year ago. "Does biotechnology pose a health hazard?" No: 53 percent; yes: 27 percent. Two to one. Almost exactly two to one.

People aren't worried about eating stuff like this. And they think all this biotechnology stuff is a bunch of environmentalist extremists trying to stir them up. Isn't that right?

KUCINICH: Well, I think that people are -- I've seen other polls, OK. And those polls say that over 80 percent of the American people would like their food -- would like to know what's in the food they eat. And they would like it labeled if it's genetically engineered. And I think, by and large, the public in this country supports the labeling of genetically engineered food as have seen throughout the European Union and Japan and Australia, Every -- virtually every industrialized nation in the world is moving into place labeling. And I would -- I would think that the public does consider this right to know very important.

NOVAK: You know, it's a funny thing, Congressman. The reason we are doing -- we have done so much better recently than the European countries and Japan is that we have a lot less government and a lot less regulation. Do you have any idea how much the regulation and labeling that you're talking about would cost?

KUCINICH: Well, I think Ford and Firestone are teaching us some lessons about regulation right now -- and the cost of regulation. And I think...

NOVAK: Well, I don't want to put these on my car. I just want to eat them.

KUCINICH: I know. But, you know -- but, you know, you're going to take them inside of you. And I think that what...

NOVAK: How much would it cost?

KUCINICH: Well, the point of regulation is that's what government -- that's the purpose of government, is to, I guess, to provide...

NOVAK: How much would it cost industry, I mean, to try to do this? How much would it cost the farmers?

KUCINICH: We have to get our priorities straight. We have to ask what our priorities are. Is the first priority here profit? Because if it is, then we are just going to proceed and not have laws about -- or regulations. But if the first priority is public health, then we have to balance the interests of public health.

And what we are trying to do is bring some balance in by having a labeling law and by having a law which provides for safety testing. That's not -- that's not very radical.

NOVAK: But just one last thing. Isn't -- I mean, let's be honest -- let's be frank about this. Isn't, when you have an operation like Friends of the Earth, they don't really care about the taco and the 1 percent of allegedly a foreign substance in there. They're against biotech foods. You may not be, but the people who are pushing this are, aren't they?

KUCINICH: First of all, I don't think there is anything wrong with being described as a friend of the Earth. I mean, you know, let's...

PRESS: Pretty radical.

NOVAK: I'm not.

KUCINICH: Well, I would think that, in some way, all of us are. You know, Chief Seattle -- you know, we don't -- the Earth doesn't belong to us, we belong to the Earth. And I believe that we have to treasure this world that we're given, and at times protect it from any unintended circumstances. And that's what we are concerned about with respect to this food.

PRESS: Senator, let me suggest why this is not just environmental extremism. I have got a little cousin who used to live on the Eastern Shore, now lives down in North Carolina, who is has a fatal allergy to peanut products, OK? Her mother goes into a store, buys a product, 60-70 percent of products on the shelves in American supermarkets today in some way are genetically modified.

How does she know? She's buying bread. She's buying milk. She's buying ice cream. How does her mother know there's not a peanut gene in there unless the label is on the package?

BOND: If there is any difference -- if there is...

PRESS: But that's -- that's a smokescreen.

BOND: No, wait a minute. Wait a minute. It's not. It's not a smokescreen.

PRESS: Sure it is...

BOND: Listen to what I'm saying. If -- if you don't want to listen to me, at least listen to the scientists. There was an instance where a Brazil nut gene was inserted into a soy bean. The testing found it could be an allergen, and it was never brought to the market because the rigorous scientific regimen that the Clinton-Gore administration pursues: The FDA, the USDA and EPA says if there's any -- if there's any additional or change -- if there's any change in the product that might have a possible harmful effect on health, then it must be labeled.

And any -- if there is -- if there is a difference in the product from the human health standpoint, it must be labeled...

PRESS: But here's the problem...

BOND: And every major scientific organization in the United States has said that our system is rigorous and effective.

PRESS: But here's the problem. You're saying basically trust the government. I've got to be honest with you, I don't trust the government. You read about this -- this one corn product. So the corn borer bites into an ear of corn, the corn borer dies because the corn has been genetically modified.

If that product is killing that corn borer, how do I know what it's doing inside of me? We're mixing things, it seems to me, that have never been mixed together before.

BOND: That's absolutely naive...

PRESS: So you're saying trust the government... BOND: That is the most naive thing I've ever heard, because the corn you eat today has BT, bacillus thuringiensis, which is a natural soil-borne insecticide that is used in all kinds of plants, and that is on plants all -- all over the country, and it is probably less harmful than the harsh chemical pesticides that are used to kill those -- those that are not tested.

The -- the possibility for biotechnology is to lessen human health risk by lessening the use of harsh chemical pesticides.

PRESS: OK. Almost out of time. McCain's, the No. 1 maker of French fries in this country, has said no more genetically modified products in their French fries. Why?

BOND: Because, because of the...

PRESS: Why, if they're not unsafe? Why?

BOND: Because of the hysteria generated by radical groups, by the European protectionists. It is a matter of hysteria. They -- the Europeans don't want the competition of the good science that we have through adequately regulated...

NOVAK: Dennis, do -- you want the last word in?

KUCINICH: Well, yes. I mean, we have a list of failed technologies. You know, tobacco was considered safe; now it's a cause of lung cancer. Asbestos was considered safe; now it's a cause of lung disease. DDT was considered safe; it's a major environmental problem. And Monsanto, the leading biotech company, was the one that brought us DDT.

NOVAK: We're out of time. Congressman Kucinich, thank you very much, Senator Bond, thank you.

And before we go out for a -- to Taco Bell's for a little evening's entertainment, Bill and I will be back with closing comments.


PRESS: OK. Earlier we asked you to go online and tell us whether you would knowingly eat genetically engineered food. Guess what? Fifty-seven percent of you said yes, 43 percent said no. It just proves, Bob, I don't know what -- these people will eat anything.

You know, Bob, even though I grew up in Delaware, in the shadow of the DuPont company, I'm not a strong believer in the motto "Better living through chemistry," especially when it comes to what I eat. I think we ought to know, they ought to be labeled.

NOVAK: You know, I shocked you last week when I said that I thought that because of the Firestone tire fiasco that there are times when government regulation is necessary. This is not one of them. I'll tell, you, the thing is there are so many extremists -- and Bill, I don't want to call you an extremist even if I have to... PRESS: You can, you've called me worse.

NOVAK: ... who want the government to get in everybody's business, who want to -- who want to eliminate progress, who want to tear down the 21st century, and they want to use this as an excuse for it. You shouldn't...

PRESS: Bob...

NOVAK: You shouldn't be...

PRESS: Bob...

NOVAK: ... deceived by these extremists.

PRESS: Bob, the food. better to have regulation of food than the tires. This is more important, Bob. You've got it backwards.

See you at Taco Bell. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Fat chance.

Good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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