GE food is different

GE food is differentby Kate Clinch-Jones 24 August 2002

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. After 5 years of following the debate on GE foods, I find that they "worry the life out of me" - so does embryonic stem cell research, but that's another story!

GE foods were originally approved as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration, as a result of a political directive, which overrode the warnings of FDA experts that they posed special risks and needed further testing. This approval was made on the basis of an unproved theory of substantial equivalence, that is, a GE food is fundamentally the same as a conventional food, so thorough assessment need not be made. It also relied on solely data provided by proponent companies. Interestingly enough, in some of ANZFA's assessments, where they are arguing that a given GE food is substantially equivalent, they are simultaneously quoting compositional analyses which show the GE food has statistically significant differences in the levels of some amino acids and/or fatty acids. This makes the substantial equivalence idea patently shaky. it also begs the (unexplored) questions: what are the different proteins accounting for the discrepancies? Are they allergenic? Or toxic? What about the fatty acids? If protein levels are different, what about vitamins and other micronutrients?

In the early days, limited animal testing was performed. Problems with this testing include:
1. In-house proponent data only, not peer reviewed.
2. Limited duration, sometimes 3- 5 days, occasionally 28 days.
3. Parameters measured include "observed twice daily for signs of morbidity and mortality".
4. Autopsy studies appear limited to gross inspection and weight of some organs. In some studies chicken breast pad thickness recorded- not transferable to humans.
5. No histopathology, no blood tests, no tests on pregnant animals. No long term tests.
6. In one example I have seen there were deaths in the test animal group, explained by accident with the gavage feed on day one- but the mouse died over a week later. This explanation was accepted with no further analysis or testing.
7. Generally small numbers used- difficult to find statistically significant differences.
8. Animals fed with purified protein extract expected to be in the GE food, not the food itself.

More recently, there is a trend for no animal testing at all. As you correctly point out, there is a precedent for ingested genetic material to be absorbed into the body and cause disease. No studies into this risk are demanded by food regulators, who just say that it won't happen. DNA promoter sequences, mostly derived from the para-retroviral cauliflower mosaic virus are used routinely to ensure the GE genes are expressed in the plant. There is no understanding of the potential effects if these promoter sequences were taken up in the body, but as cancer and other diseases are associated with altered gene expression, extreme caution should have been employed before these foods were ever taken to market. In addition, the cauliflower mosaic virus is in the same taxonomic group as the human hepatitis B virus, and sometimes other viral sequences are incorporated. There is concern that these sequences may lead to viral recombination, for example reactivating dormant viruses in humans or animals consuming them. Clearly this could have serious effects. As you also correctly point out, early results from the FIRST EVER human feeding study show gut bacteria are picking up antibiotic resistance marker genes from GE foods. The importance of this is that currently marketed GE foods probably all contain genes for antibiotic resistance, in many cases beta-lactamase or kanamycin-resistance (confers resistance to gentamicin). Also of course many farm animals are likely to consume large quantities of GE feeds. The risk of horizontal gene transfer occurring has been categorically denied by regulators world-wide, with no research to support their position. ANZFA reasons that this is very unlikely "because of the number and complexity" of steps involved, and that it wouldn't matter anyway, as there are already resistant bacteria. There are also risks of food allergy, as the genetic engineering process is introducing genes from non-food sources, with largely unknown allergenicity profiles, on the one hand, and potentially altering gene expression in the rest of the plant genome. Consequently, GE food may predispose to food allergy (and also problems when pollen or dusts are inhaled). This is not tested for. All that is done is to compare the introduced gene's proteins with a data base of the structure of a number of known allergens, and if there isn't a match, the food is deemed non-allergenic. Many GE crops are engineered to produce insecticidal proteins, which unlike conventional sprays, cannot be washed off prior to consumption. Once again no testing of the long-term effects of these chemicals has been done. When challenged on these issues, ANZFA reiterates its basic assumption that GE foods are safe and have been thoroughly evaluated.

I have received personal communication explaining that if the acute toxicity tests show no sign of toxicity, there is no need to perform long-term safety testing. Unfortunately ANZFA does not acknowledge that there are different mechanisms between, say acute poisoning, and carcinogenesis or teratogenesis. And there is always the old fall-back line. Americans have been eating GE food for longer than we have with not one single reported problem. We can all see through the holes in this reasoning-
a) Americans have terrible health statistics and a virtual epidemic of cancer, hypertension and diabetes, so cannot be claimed to be paragons of robust health.
b) No one knows what GE foods they have eaten when- no labelling.
c) No one knows what illnesses they might cause or increase the risk of. Many doctors have little or no knowledge about GE foods.
d) There is no post-marketing surveillance program in place. Clearly, there is potential for GE foods to cause significant human health effects.

The likelihood of a problem occurring is unknown, due to the shocking paucity of safety data available. The likelihood of a problem occurring obviously increased with every new GE food product introduced. Of course, there are also potentially drastic environmental risks associated with GE crops being grown in the open. But that is another story too.