WASHINGTON -- In a long-awaited policy statement, the federal government plans to announce that foods developed through biotechnology are not inherently dangerous and, except rare cases, should not require extraordinary testing and regulation before going on the market.
Some critics of genetically engineered foods have argued that they pose new safety risks and any foods that contain new substances should go through the extensive testing required of new food additives.
In addition, they say, any such food sold to the public should be labeled so that consumers can identify it.
The new policy, by contrast, holds that genetically engineered foods should be regulated just like ordinary ones unless they contain ingredients not usual for the product.
Government officials say scientific evidence does not indicate that special precautions are warranted in most cases of gene-altered foods, and the new policy outlines the special circumstances that would require testing and regulation before a product goes on the market.
Special review would be required only when specific safety issues were raised; for example, if the gene for peanut protein, to which some people are allergic, is inserted into a tomato.
Officials of the federal agency said the core of the policy was based on science and the principle that industry should have to consult the agency only on decidedly novel components of food before marketing a product.
The new policy statement was requested by the budding biotechnology industry, which has several types of genetically engineered produce almost ready for market.
According to the industry, more than a dozen companies in the United States have developed a total of almost 70 different crops, including cucumbers, potatoes and cantaloupes, that contain new proteins, enzymes or other substances that enhance their quality.
Genetic technology holds the promise of producing foods that are more nutritious, tastier and longer-lasting while requiring less fertilizer and pesticide.
One of the first of the new products is a tomato developed by Calgene Inc., of Davis, Calif., that is endowed with an extra gene that confers a longer shelf life by delaying excessive ripening.
Last November, Calgene became the first company to ask voluntarily for the federal agency to evaluate a genetically altered food.
"The industry has asked the FDA for a policy because it wants to say to the public that the FDA knows these products and stands by their safety," said a senior agency official who spoke on condition that he not be identified.
"Industry wants the policy to help with product acceptability and, to an extent, for liability protection. It helps to say you are in compliance with government regulations."
The debate over genetically engineered foods has continued for more than a decade. But many of the initial concerns raised by critics now seem less formidable and, after extensive discussion, a consensus has developed in favor of moving ahead with the technology, although with appropriate precautions.
The federal agency's policy, which would go into effect when when published in the Federal Register, was spurred by the President's Council on Competitiveness, a group headed by Vice President Dan Quayle that is charged with reducing regulations that it believes hamper American industry.