Toxicity From Genetically-Engineered Foods
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Genetically altered food: Buyer beware
By John Fagan
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 labeling
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
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. 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
Informed choice by consumers will protect the integrity of the
biotechnology and food industries and maintain confidence in the American
Genetically modified foods that have been approved, are awaiting approval
or are under development in the USA:
Corn Sugar cane
Source: U.S. Agriculture Dept.
Dr. John B. Fagan is a molecular biologist who has conducted research using
recombinant DNA techniques.