Federal panel urges fresh scrutiny of altered foods

By J.R. Pegg

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 techniques.

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 unjustified."

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 area.

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 said.

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," he said.

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 for concern."

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 resistant.

Genetically modified crops are increasing some 15 percent a year and now account for five percent of the world’s crop area.

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," Masters said.

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 Rights Reserved.


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