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The chefs of America are dishing it out - to the federal government. Angered by the administration's decision to allow genetically engineered foods on the market without what the chefs consider to be proper testing and labeling, some 1,500 of them have banded together and pledged not to serve such foods in their restaurants.

Is their outrage justified? Are genetically engineered foods dangerous to health? Or have the chefs overreacted? To answer that question, we need to understand how these foods are produced.Food that has been genetically engineered, or altered, is food to which a gene has been added that wasn't there originally. All foods contain long chains of genes known as DNA, and it is DNA that makes broccoli, for instance, look and taste like broccoli, or flounder look and taste like flounder. But scientists can now engineer new foods by splicing into an item's DNA chain a gene from another food source, or perhaps a gene that was created in a laboratory. That doesn't mean that broccoli with a gene from a fish can swim, or that cornbread with firefly genes can fly! What the newly inserted genes tend to do, rather, is keep food fresh longer, make it more resistant to pests or improve its taste.

Genetic engineers view the technique as similar to traditional breeding techniques, where, for instance, tangerines and grapefruits are mated to create tangelos, or a good-tasting but quick-to-spoil grape is bred with one that is sour yet hardy in order to create an "offspring" that's both sweet and strong. They say the process is safe, just as many independent scientists do. The federal government agrees and has ruled that most genetically engineered foods may appear on the market without prior testing or approval.

But that leaves the chefs, along with other critics, uneasy. Some scientists and consumer groups believe a food that has been "tinkered with" genetically should be looked at as thoroughly as any food with a new additive and should not be placed on the market before it's proven safe. They are concerned, too, about the government's policy that a genetically altered food does not have to be labeled as such at the supermarket. What if someone is allergic to a food, they say, and is unaware that a gene from that food has been put into another food? Or what if a vegetarian unwittingly eats, for example, a carrot "laced" with a gene from a chicken? Similarly, they express concern for Jews and Moslems who follow a diet for religious reasons.

The government maintains that it has taken these considerations into account, at least in cases where allergies may be involved. It requires that when a gene from a common allergen such as nuts or shellfish is put into a new food, the manufacturer must test the food for safety and obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration before it is sold. The manufacturer must also label the item appropriately to alert customers. Other foods that must undergo preliminary testing and a government approval process are those that have had their nutritional content altered significantly or have had their level of toxins changed.

Such rules do not placate the chefs. They still feel that too much latitude has been granted to food manufacturers, who have been given a strong say as to which foods need testing and federal approval.

So where does that leave the consumer? Fortunately, not in a dangerous predicament. One reason is that the first genetically engineered food to be sold in super-markets, a new tomato called "Flavr Savr," won't show up in your produce aisle for almost another year. And when it does, it won't be anything unusual that combines plant and animal genes. The "Flavr Savr" tomato will simply contain a gene synthesized in a laboratory that keeps it from rotting too quickly and allows it to remain on the vine about five days longer than usual before shipping. That means it will feel and taste better.

The more exotic genetic combinations are not expected to appear on supermarket shelves for several years. And people who worry about their safety can take comfort in the fact that the new government guidelines on the marketing of genetically engineered foods are not apt to be the final rule. Not until they go from being "guidelines" to "regulations" will they be engraved in stone. That's not likely to happen for quite a while and not without consideration of public sentiment.

Washington Post Writers Group