* Legal petition is first step toward lawsuit
* 200 organizations supporting labeling demand
* Monsanto sweet corn targeted for boycott (Adds details, edits throughout)
By Carey Gillam
Oct 4 (Reuters) - The Center for Food Safety said Tuesday it has filed a legal petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking mandatory labeling for foods made from genetically engineered crops, a move long opposed by big biotech companies.
"They should label the foods and let consumers know. This carte blanche they've been giving the industry is not acceptable," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), in an interview.
"There are novel ingredients in the food that have never been there before," he said.
The legal action by CFS requires a formal response from the FDA and is the first step toward ultimately filing a lawsuit against the government agency to try to force labeling, Kimbrell said. CFS, a consumer advocacy organization, has filed several lawsuits against the government in recent years and successfully stymied approvals of some biotech crops.
There are thousands of unlabeled items on grocery store shelves that contain at least traces of genetically altered corn, soybeans and other crops. The government is also considering approval of a genetically altered salmon.
In the summer, Biotech crop developer Monsanto Co. (MON.N) introduced a new sweet corn for consumers that is genetically altered to make it toxic to insects and able to withstand treatments of chemical herbicides.
The CFS and the Center for Environmental Health have been calling on food companies that make frozen and/or canned corn to boycott the new corn, which is not labeled as genetically altered.
Monsanto and other biotech seed companies oppose labeling and say the crops and foods made from genetically modified seeds are indistinguishable from non-GMO foods in composition, nutrition and safety.
"The safety and benefits of genetically modified crops are well established," Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher told Reuters.
The action against FDA by CFS is backed by a coalition of about 350 organizations that include representatives of the healthcare industry, consumer advocates, environmentalists, food and farming organizations and businesses.
Horizon Organic, one of the country's largest suppliers of organic milk and several other organic organizations, are part of the effort, as is The Rural Advancement Foundation International nonprofit policy group, and Food & Water Watch consumer rights group in Washington.
In addition to the legal petition, the coalition also launched a website petition campaign on Tuesday to encourage consumers to pressure the FDA on the labeling issue. The coalition argues that many other developed countries such as the 15 nations in the European Union, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and China, have laws requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods. A majority of U.S. consumers wants such labeling as well, according to polls.
A political action group calling itself "Label GMOs, Committee for the Right to Know," is pushing a 2012 ballot initiative in California to require companies to label foods that contain GMO products.
The FDA had no immediate comment on the CFS legal petition, but a spokesman said previous court decisions have found that the agency does not have the authority to require labeling on the basis of consumer interest alone.
Monsanto said extensive government review assures the safety of the foods.
"All of the products being grown by farmers in the U.S. have been reviewed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," said Helscher. "The safety has been confirmed by national food safety agencies like FDA and counterparts agencies in other countries, as well as international public health institutions like the World Health Organization."
The CFS petition alleges that the "absence of mandatory labeling disclosures for GE (genetically engineered) foods is misleading to consumers," and says the "requested actions are necessary to prevent economic fraud, and to protect consumers who are deceived by thinking the absence of labeling means the absence of GE foods." (Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City and Alina Selyukh in Washington; Editing by Andrea Evans)