WASHINGTON, DC, July 29, 2004 (ENS): Federal regulatory agencies
should more closely examine the safety of genetically
modified crops before approving them for commercial
production, a federal science advisory panel recommends
in a report issued Wednesday. "Adverse health effects
from genetic engineering have not been documented in
the human population, but the technique is new and concerns
about its safety remain," said the panel.
It calls on regulators to pay more attention to foods
containing new compounds or unusual amounts of naturally
occurring substances, regardless of whether they are
created through genetic engineering or other breeding
The report, produced by a 14 member joint committee
of the National Academies' National Research Council
and Institute of Medicine, was commissioned by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The committee used the term "genetic modification"
to describe the broad array of breeding techniques used
to alter plants and animals that can be inherited from
one generation to the next. These techniques range from
traditional cross-breeding to the use of chemicals or
radiation to the use of genetic engineering.
All methods can cause unexpected changes in allergens,
toxins and nutrients that could harm human health, the
panel said, so attempts to assess food safety based
solely on the technique used are "scientifically
The likelihood for unintended changes is "a function
of the product of the technology rather than the technology
itself," said committee chair Bettie Sue Masters,
a professor of chemistry with the University of Texas
Health Science Center.
The report does not mandate reviews of genetically modified
crops by federal regulators, but calls for reviews on
a "case by case basis."
The panel said a new genetically modified food whose
composition is very similar to a commonly used conventional
version may warrant little or no additional safety evaluation.
If an unknown substance has been detected in a food,
the committee recommends a more detailed analysis be
conducted to determine whether an allergen or toxin
may be present
In addition, foods with nutrient levels that fall outside
the normal range should be assessed for their potential
impact on consumers' diets and health.
The committee noted that the current ability of scientists
to predict whether such changes will cause adverse health
effects is limited and more research is needed in this
Cloned animals that are engineered to produce pharmaceuticals
should be kept from entering the food chain, said the
committee, which was also asked to examine safety issues
related to foods from cloned animals. Safety evaluation
of foods from these animals should compare foods from
cloned animals with those from noncloned animals. At
present, there is no evidence that foods from cloned
animals pose an increased risk to consumers, the panel
The panel said regulators should continue to evaluate
the safety of some products after they come to market
and to assess the effectiveness of pre-market evaluations.
There is currently no way to track genetically modified
foods or identify individuals who have eaten them.
"There does need to be a way of tracing these
new products," said panel member Lynn Goldman,
MD, professor of occupational and environmental health
in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"This is something that will pose a scientific
challenge to the agencies and the industry."
The panel did not recommend how tracing should be set
up. The European Union has just implemented a strict
traceability regime for genetically modified foods after
years of planning and is beginning to lift its five
year de facto moratorium.
Dr. Michael Phillips, spokesman for the Biotechnology
Industry Organization hailed the National Research Council's
report as "yet another milestone in consumer acceptance
of agricultural biotechnology."
Phillips said the report provides a regulatory blueprint
that can offer consumers confidence in the safety of
genetically engineered foods.
"This report should lay to rest the few naysayers
who continue to question the safety of these crops,"
But some consumer advocates have already questioned
the scope of the study and say it lacks teeth.
The report falls "far short of recommendations
that would offer consumers assurance about the safety
of genetically engineered food crops," said U.S.
Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Food Safety Advocate
Richard Caplan. "That [the committee] is offering
important suggestions to improve the system when these
foods are already on our dinner tables gives us cause
The United States grows more genetically engineered
crops than any other country - some 34 percent of U.S.
corn and 75 percent of U.S. soybeans fit into this category.
Genetic engineering of crops is an emotional issue
for many people, with concerns about economics, public
health, environmental protection, national sovereignty
and world hunger all playing a role.
Environmentalists and some food safety advocates caution
that the public health and environmental impacts of
genetic modification are poorly understood.
Genetic engineering involves the deletion of genes
or the transfer of genes for from one species to another.
The majority of commercially available genetically engineered
crops are modified to be herbicide tolerant or insect
Genetically modified crops are increasing some 15 percent
a year and now account for five percent of the world’s
Both sides agree that the biotechnology industry, which
dreams of modifying crops for industrial and pharmaceutical
purposes, is still in its early days.
The National Research Council panel says genetically
engineered crops currently on the market are safe, but
it does acknowledge that scientific evidence on the
environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering
is still emerging.
"Genetically engineered foods do not have a long
history of use and the implications of the process of
genetic engineering are not completely understood,"
Caplan says the committee understated this lack of
knowledge and failed to call on the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) to institute a mandatory pre-market
assessment according to commonly accepted protocols
like the one outlined by the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.
Currently, U.S. companies that make genetically engineered
foods can voluntarily work with the FDA to assess safety
concerns or can choose not to do so.
"The fact is these foods are on our dinner tables
right now," Caplan said. "Unfortunately there
remains much work to be done to improve the system of
oversight for genetically engineered food crops, and
it starts by changing the current voluntary system at
FDA to a mandatory one."
Read the report, "Safety of Genetically Engineered
Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects,"
online at: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10977.html
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All