Safety of Genetically Engineered Animals
By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
You may have heard of genetically modified plants – corn and soybeans are the most common. But did you know that genetically engineered (GE) animals are on their way to a supermarket near you? And if the FDA has its way, consumers won’t know if the foods they buy are from GE animals or not. That’s because, just like it did with plants, the FDA didn’t include labeling requirements in the recently drafted guidelines for foods that come from GE animals.
Better Living Through Biotech?
What exactly are GE animals? They have snippets of DNA from other animals, plants or organisms inserted into their own DNA to give them special traits. (The actual GE animals themselves aren’t likely to be what you’d eat, but their descendants could end up on your plate.) Proponents boast of characteristics that will make animals grow faster, resist disease, and be more nutritious or more productive. One real-life example in testing is a pig that contains omega-3 fatty acids because of a fish gene inserted into its DNA.
But how safe or beneficial is it to mess with Mother Nature? Hard to tell, since genetically engineered animals aren’t tested for safety in humans – making genetic modification the biggest human feeding experiment ever conducted. Does the world really need transgenic animals in our food supply? Or is this just something that benefits corporations, not individuals?
Animals Or Drugs?
The FDA considers “new” DNA inserted into an animal to be a drug. Because the DNA is then part of the animal, the FDA classifies the animals themselves (and their offspring and byproducts) as drugs. That may sound bizarre, but the upside is that once the regulations go into effect, companies will have to prove safety and efficacy before going to market. The downside is you have to be proactive to get at this information, since there won’t be a label to tell you how or why (or which) animals and byproducts have been altered.
So how is this DNA “splicing” accomplished? An extra piece of genetic material is inserted into the animal’s genome at the earliest stages of development. Sometimes the method involves manipulating a fertilized egg that is then implanted into a surrogate mother. Other times, it alters a cell from which an animal will be cloned. As the embryo grows, the DNA splice is replicated with the rest of the genetic material so that it ends up in every cell of the individual animal.
In pigs developed to contain omega-3 fatty acids, the added gene directs the formation of an enzyme that converts naturally occurring omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s. The gene is derived from tiny roundworms but is modified to make it more mammalian, says Randall Prather, co-director of the National Swine Resource and Research Center at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who developed these pigs.
When Things Go Wrong
The biggest concerns about GE animals center around environmental and safety issues. How will these animals be tracked and monitored? And what happens if, for instance, a transgenic salmon escapes into the wild? Since FDA has little experience – not to mention few resources – the onus is likely going to be on the companies themselves. Essentially, that means self-regulation – which I personally think is a very bad idea.
At a recent press briefing on GE animals, sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one company suggested a national animal identification program to keep information on these animals transparent – a good first step.
But genes aren’t the same as drugs. Drugs may have long-lasting effects on an individual, but they wouldn’t get passed on to future generations. In the case of biotech animals, however, you’re altering the DNA of that animal, which gets carried on to its offspring.
Such lasting effects may have implications for the possible escape of the genes to natural populations – an issue that is far beyond the FDA’s expertise or authority.
One Last Thing …
With so many environmental, safety, and health questions unanswered, the FDA shouldn’t be introducing GE animals into our food supply. But since they seem hell-bent on doing so, the safety review should be more open and transparent.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the way it typically works. The FDA’s regulatory processes for drugs – including animal drugs – are, on the whole, secret and done behind closed doors. By law, the company that produces the drug controls what information is made public.
So what can you do? Speak out and tell lawmakers that you want clear labeling of GE animals, as well as strict controls on their safety and monitoring. You can start by writing or emailing your Congressional representatives. If you want to get more involved, there are several groups you can join. The Center for Food Safety (www.centerforfoodsafety.org) is working to prevent the approval, commercialization, or release of any new genetically engineered foods until they’ve been thoroughly tested and found safe for human health and the environment. The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods (www.thecampaign.org) is a grassroots political action group fighting to have these “frankenfoods” labeled, so consumers can make informed choices at the supermarket.
Research Brief …
People who eat a lot of soy – especially postmenopausal women – have a much lower risk of colon and rectal cancers than those who eat less. Those are the new findings from researchers with the Shanghai Women’s Health Study, a large population study in China that involved more than 68,000 women age 40 to 70. Researchers tracked the women’s soy intake and their incidence of colorectal cancers for more than six years.
The results? The women who ate the most soy products were 30 percent less likely to develop either kind of cancer compared to women who ate the least. For each additional five grams of soy eaten daily, the risk dropped by about 8 percent.
Do you want to increase your soy intake? The good news is that you aren’t limited to tofu. You can find a wide variety of soy foods – from edamame (boiled, salted soybeans) to soy-based ice cream – in most grocery stores. But since soy is one of the most genetically manipulated crops grown in the U.S., look for organic whenever possible.
“Genetically Engineered Animals.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. January 15, 2009. www.fda.gov/cvm/geanimals
“It Came From the Grocery Store: Genetically Engineered Meat May Be Heading to a Supermarket Near You.” The Center for Food Safety. 2009.
Yang G, Shu X, Li H, et al. “Prospective cohort study of soy-food intake and colorectal cancer risk in women.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009; 89: 577-583.