Let's hear it for Coca-Cola: The company that churns out enough soft drink and juice products to fill one or more of the Great Lakes says it won't bow to pressure to avoid use of sweeteners made from genetically engineered crops, nor will it label its products as “biotech” or “non-biotech.”

In its annual report to stockholders, the company notes a proposal on behalf of a group of shareholders asking that it adopt a policy to phase out the use of GMO products and provide an interim step of labeling and identifying products containing such ingredients.

“We recognize the views of those who oppose genetic engineering in agriculture,” Coca-Cola's board of directors noted, “and we respect their right to those views. We are continually monitoring this field ourselves. However, with respect to this specific proposal, we can assure our shareowners that the new crop varieties at issue here do not alter the safety or quality of our products in any way.”

Coca-Cola's position regarding GMOs is somewhat different from other food manufacturers in that any DNA or protein, whether genetically modified or not, is removed from its sweeteners in the refining process. Thus, the tempest in a teapot over “Frankenstein foods” that has kept Europe's and Great Britain's consumers in a state of high dudgeon, is a moot point in the manufacture of the varied line of Coca-Cola drinks, the company says.

“We have a firm policy of using only ingredients that have been thoroughly evaluated for safety and accepted for food use by all appropriate regulatory agencies. We will continue to support the efforts of national and international food safety and regulatory authorities and take whatever steps are necessary, based on sound scientific principles, to assure that any new food technology is safe for consumers and the environment.”

The furor over biotech in Europe that has resulted in supermarkets pulling products from their shelves has been pretty much a ho-hum non-issue with American consumers, but the continuing fall-out from the StarLink corn publicity and the ongoing anti-biotech harangues in Europe and elsewhere are having something of a dampening effect on the adoption of the technology in the U.S.

The USDA's recent 50-million bushel downward revision of its corn exports estimate hinted that a portion of the drop was because of overseas buyers' concerns about supplies being contaminated with the non-food use variety. Despite an unprecedented effort to get all the StarLink corn out of the food chain, the biotech-sensitive international market has been on edge over the issue.

Almost simultaneously, Monsanto was cranking up a campaign to try and offset concerns about its planned introduction of the world's first biotech wheat, a Roundup Ready variety. Teams of company officials are reported to be launching efforts in key wheat import markets to gain acceptance of their new product. Reports are that the biotech pioneer will file for USDA and FDA approval of its new spring wheat variety late this year or early in 2002.

At the same time, Monsanto said it is ditching its genetically modified potato variety, NewLeaf, which was introduced in 1995. While the company termed it “a great crop, but a niche crop,” and said the move represented a streamlining of its operations so it can focus efforts on its cotton, soybean, wheat, and corn business, there had been considerable opposition by end-users to the GMO potatoes. Several fast food chains, including McDonald's, have told their french fry suppliers not to use the potatoes.

Starbucks, the Seattle company that has made zillions from designer coffees, is moving to serve its customers only milk that is free from genetically modified ingredients. Although the FDA says extensive research has shown milk containing the bovine growth hormone is completely safe for human consumption, the Organic Consumers Association has launched a campaign to pressure Starbucks into using only products that are “GMO-free and organic.”

e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com