GENTECH archive 8.96-97
USA Today Article, March 6, 1997 Page A-13, Genetically , Altered Food: BuyerBeware
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USA Today March 6, 1997
Genetically Altered Food: Buyer Beware
By John Fagan
(Dr. John B. Fagan is a molecular biologist who has
conducted research using recombinant DNA techniques.)
There's a war on in Europe, and most Americans have hardly
heard about it. It concerns the safety of something very
basic to human life: our food. Why are we so uninformed
while European consumers are up in arms and their governments
are taking swift action against the uncontrolled
introduction of genetically modified foods?
Mention genetically altered foods to most Americans,
and you will get a blank stare. A genetically cloned
sheep has stolen the headlines. Yet with each
passing day, we are filling our grocery carts
with these foods in ever-increasing percentages
without our knowledge or consent.
In Europe, shiploads of these products have been
halted at borders. Supermarket chains and food producers
have banned these products from their shelves or promised
consumers that they will label these foods conspicuously.
In fact, several nations are enacting stringent
What is at the core of the fear about these new foods?
And should this concern derail work some claim will
increase agricultural efficiency and reduce world
hunger? Scientific journals and leading scientists
have joined in the chorus to urge definitive research
into the possible risks in advance of mass
use by humans.
Scientists have altered foods by inserting into them
genes from bacteria and viruses. Many more such
products containing foreign DNA from insects, fish and
even humans are in the R&D pipeline and soon will be
headed for our dinner plates.
Foods altered through genetic engineering often contain
proteins and other components that have never before
been part of the human diet: proteins from
bacteria and viruses and, in the future, proteins
from insects, scorpions and people. There is no way
to predict whether those foods are safe to eat. The
only way to tell is to test them rigorously. Yet our
government does not require such testing.
The risks are not hypothetical. Any unbiased scientist
familiar with the technology will admit that genetic
engineering can give rise to unanticipated allergens
and toxins. Already we have seen this scenario in action.
In 1989, a dietary supplement, L-tryptophan, caused
37 U.S. deaths and 1,511 nonfatal cases of a disease
called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). The Centers for
Disease Control linked these cases to tryptophan manufactured
using genetically engineered bacteria. A study published
in Science in 1990 confirmed that the tryptophan was
contaminated with a toxic "novel amino acid" not present in
tryptophan produced by other methods.
How could this problem have been prevented? Routine
food-safety tests could not have done the job. They
can only detect the presence of toxins or allergens
known to be present in common foods such as shellfish
and peanuts. Such tests on the genetically altered
tryptophan would not have registered a blip. Only
biological and clinical tests on humans would have
revealed the truth. Unfortunately, these tests were
not done. Moreover, they are still not required for
other genetically engineered foods. Advocates maintain
that the risk from any given genetically engineered
food is small and argue, therefore, that it is unnecessary
to carry out stringent safety testing.
This view is not scientifically responsible.
Thousands of these foods products will be brought to
market over the next several years. When we do the math,
the small risk that any given product will produce
unanticipated effects translates into virtual certainty
of harm when many new genetically engineered foods have
become part of the diet of large populations over
extended periods of time.
What is the solution? Given that billions of dollars
have been invested in developing these products, we
cannot exclude them from the market. Nonetheless,
consumer safety must be protected. Here are three
suggestions to address both issues:
Safety testing must be made more stringent. (Bold)
The only scientifically valid approach is to feed these foods
to human volunteers and see how they respond. Such testing
is required by the FDA before new foods or additives
produced by other methods can be marketed. Why should
genetically altered foods be an exception?
All genetically engineered foods must be labeled as such. (Bold)
Safety testing can never give us a guarantee with 100% certainty.
For example, tests extending over three years may fail to detect
harmful effects that require five years to emerge. Mandatory
labeling gives the consumer choice in whether to accept that risk.
Health officials can also better trace the source of any
problems if the products are labeled.
The public must be properly informed about the benefits
and risks. (Bold)
Informed choice by consumers will protect the integrity of
the biotechnology and food industries and maintain confidence
in the American food supply.
Genetically modified foods that have been approved,
are awaiting approval or are under development in the USA:
Corn Sugar cane
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Dr. John B. Fagan is a molecular biologist who has
conducted research using recombinant DNA techniques.