BRUSSELS, Belgium - The member nations of the United Nations have agreed on terminology for labeling genetically engineered foods.

"Genetically-modified organism" (GMO) is to be defined as "an organism in which the genetic material has been modified through genetic technology in a way which does not occur naturally by reproduction or by natural recombination." The agreement is a step toward a standardized approach to labeling of GM foods throughout the 164 members of the Codex Alimentarius, the United Nations body that establishes international voluntary standards on foods.

The labeling committee of the Codex reached the agreement at a meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, earlier this month. After formal endorsement by member countries, the terms will be adopted as an amendment to the general standards for labeling prepacked food products.

An overall system for labeling GMOs is still to be decided, however. Because of trans-Atlantic differences in approach, the question was left out of the Protocol on Biosafety adopted in Montreal in January by more than 130 countries that had signed up to the 1992 U.N. Convention on Biodiversity. The United States wants to identify GMOs only when they present a danger to health or to the environment, whereas the European Union favors systematic labeling of all foods that have undergone genetic modification.

Canada, which chairs the Codex labeling committee, backs the U.S. view, but is trying to develop a compromise that will satisfy consumer concerns and win international support. Margaret Kenny, spokeswoman for the Canadian Agency for Food Inspection, said in Ottawa: "The aim is to find a way to combine the best of the two approaches."

Consumer organizations have criticized the United Nations for taking so long to reach a solution. A Canadian biotechnology action network is demanding that the Codex should support the European position and impose mandatory identification of GMOs. Its spokesman, Richard Wolfson, said: "It will take years before the consequences of genetically modified foods are known, so we are demanding immediate mandatory labeling and long-term research."

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