More than half of American consumers surveyed said genetically modified foods should be routinely labeled as such even though the Food and Drug Administration believes special labels are not needed, according to a food industry group.

The survey of 1,000 adults was prepared by the International Food Information Council Foundation, a group funded by food and beverage companies which generally oppose labels on gene-spliced foods as expensive and raising unnecessary concerns in the minds of shoppers.

The FDA last month decided to maintain its long-standing policy of not requiring special labels for biotech foods unless the nutritional content is changed or an allergen is introduced.

The industry poll also showed many Americans were aware of last autumn's recall of hundreds of foods containing the unapproved variety of biotech corn known as StarLink. Vast amounts of the U.S. corn supply were accidentally contaminated with StarLink, which can be used for animal feed but not human food because of government concerns about possible allergic reactions.

The food foundation said the most surprising results in the survey came from a question about whether consumers agree with the FDA's labeling position or with critics who say all biotech foods should be clearly identified as such.

Some 58 percent of respondents said they agreed with critics, up from 43 percent when a similar question was used in a poll last May.

"This question represents the most significant shift in the survey, perhaps the result of the StarLink episode," the food foundation said in a statement.

"However, when consumers were presented with information resource alternatives to the food label in the next question, 75 percent affirm that information should be provided through toll-free numbers, brochures and Web sites 'instead of labeling'," the foundation added.

The food group said consumers had "mixed feelings" on the labeling issue.

Another question on the survey asked if consumers supported the FDA's current food labeling policy. Some 70 percent of respondents said they did.

The labeling issue is a crucial one for American foodmakers, who already face growing international pressure to identify biotech foods. Japan, South Korea and and European Union members require gene-altered foods to be clearly marked so consumers know what they are buying.

U.S. foodmakers have long maintained that bioengineered foods are safe and no different from conventional foods.

The FDA spent much of last year studying how to change its nearly decade-old biotech food approval process. In a report summarizing comments from the focus groups, the FDA said most consumers told interviewers that gene-spliced foods should be labeled.

"Virtually all participants saw value in having 'mere disclosure' labeling. They thought it would allow them to make more informed decisions about whether or not to buy a product," the FDA said in its report, which was recently published on the agency's Internet home page.

Last month FDA announced it would issue voluntary guidelines for any companies that wish to use labels on biotech foods, but would not require them. The agency said that to ease consumer concerns it would ask foodmakers to notify FDA scientists at least 120 days before marketing new bio-foods, a mandatory review that will replace what is now a voluntary consultation. The FDA also plans to publish food companies' biotech safety test results on its Internet site, but it remained unclear whether companies could request that such data be kept secret for competitive reasons.

Reuters