Is Genetically Engineered Food the Food of the Future?

By John McQuaid, "Is This the Food of the Future?," March/April 2011

Super salmon, enviropigs, blemish-free apples—What does the new wave of genetically engineered foods mean for our health and our planet?

That’s by design. In the 1980s the Reagan administration basically punted on the issue, giving the FDA, USDA and EPA authority over transgenic foods, but no new legal authority or guidance to enforce it. In the case of GE animals, the FDA has adapted existing procedures originally designed for other things. Gene engineering of animals, for instance, is defined and regulated as an “animal drug.” “This is no drug like you or I are going to consume,” says Jaydee Hanson, M.A., a senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group opposed to industrial agriculture and GE foods. “If I give an animal a new antibiotic, it’s supposed to pass out of the animal before you eat it. Here you have a ‘drug’ that is supposed to stay in every cell of the animal or it isn’t going to work right.” A change in an animal’s genome shapes its entire physical makeup, its biological essence, if you will—and that of all its potential descendants.

Still, the FDA process is generally well-regarded, says Eric Hallerman, Ph.D., a professor of fisheries science at Virginia Tech, who was an invited speaker at the FDA Advisory Committee meeting on the salmon last September. “The review of food safety is rigorous. In this case, before it goes to market, this fish has probably had more oversight than any fisheries product on the market at any time in the past,” Hallerman says.

The FDA keeps its drug proceedings mostly secret to protect proprietary business information. The agency reviewed the possible health and environmental risks of the AquAdvantage salmon for more than a decade and released the first summary of its work only last September. It showed mostly positive results for the salmon, finding no significant health or environmental problems in bringing it to market.

But some outside scientists didn’t like what they saw. “What are the potential health impacts of eating this fish? The answer is, we don’t know. The data package is so pathetic we can’t tell,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Consumers Union, the independent consumer advocacy organization that publishes Consumer Reports. Hansen says the scientific studies cited—many done by AquaBounty—have holes. One study, for instance, could not measure the amount of growth hormone produced by either the GE or non-GE salmon because it was below the detection limits of the test. While that does mean the overall levels are low, Hansen says, a review of this importance should provide definitive answers. “It’s like using a radar gun that doesn’t detect anything below 120 mph, and then concluding there’s no difference between the speeds at which cars and bicycles travel,” he says.

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