The Bureau of National Affairs
PHILADELPHIA--Sales of genetically engineered foods are 'dead' in Europe until manufacturers can convince consumers that the benefits outweigh any potential risk, a food safety consultant to the European Union said March 21.
Bevan Moseley, a molecular geneticist, disputed the safety of genetically modified food during a debate between the Society of Toxicology and European Society of Toxicology (EUROTOX) held during SOT's meeting March 19-23.
Moseley represented EUROTOX. He also chairs the Working Group on Novel Foods in the European Union's Scientific Committee on Food.
Moseley opposed the idea that traditional tests, which show genetically modified foods are as safe as their traditional counterparts, are an appropriate way to assess the foods' safety.
Ian Munro, who represented SOT, argued in favor of traditional tests.
SOT asked both men to focus on food safety, not ecological issues that also are part of the debate.
"I support the technology," Moseley asserted. However, unless manufacturers conduct multigenerational safety studies that examine a multitude of possible risks, unexpected problems may occur, he said.
Currently, companies that develop GM foods test the toxin and allergen levels of the new food as well as the safety of the genetic trait they are implanting, Moseley said. If both are safe, the companies assume the new food must be safe, he added. However, it is not that simple, Moseley continued. Creating genetic variations within a crop is not as specific a process as consumers are led to believe, he said. When companies introduce a genetic trait into a plant, they do not know where it will be added in the plant's DNA, so they do not know what effects it may cause, he said. Further, part of a transferred gene may be "lost," possibly causing later unforeseen effects, he said.
This means companies must conduct tests to detect unanticipated problems, Moseley said. Because he is not a toxicologist, Moseley said he did not know exactly which tests are needed. However, he said, "we have to be ready."
If companies are not prepared, problems may emerge, and "that would kill the whole science of genetically modified food," Moseley said. "I don't want that to happen. ... The public won't forgive us."
Moseley described several problems companies face as they try to convince the public, particularly the European public, to buy genetically modified foods.
'Burned' by Mad Cow Disease
First, Europeans do not trust scientists who tell them food is safe, because in the early 1990s scientists assured them British beef was safe, Moseley said. Since then 50 people have died and 12 people have been diagnosed with a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), which has been associated with beef contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly called "mad cow disease."
"We don't know if this is the tip of the iceberg or most of the iceberg," Moseley said. That experience has made European consumers worried about chronic illnesses they fear they may contract from food, he said.
Genetically modified foods benefit farmers, but they offer "no perceivable benefit" to consumers, Moseley argued.
Consumers would see a benefit if GM foods were cheaper or the quality significantly better, but most GM foods do not offer such advantages, he said.
Developing "functional foods" might offer such advantages, Moseley said. He referred to foods that would be modified to have more vitamins or antioxidants. However, developing such foods will involve inserting multiple genetic variations into a plant, he said. Today, most GM foods involve only a single genetic modification, he added.
As companies move toward these more complicated endeavors, Moseley said, he would be "very surprised" if they did not create inadvertent, unexpected health problems in these foods.
Traditional Tests Can Work
Traditional tests that examine the toxins and allergens in foods can determine whether genetically modified foods are safe, countered SOT Ian Munro. Munro is president of CANTOX Health Sciences International, a consulting firm based in Mississauga, Ontario.
"Genetically modified food should be as safe as its traditional counterpart," Munro said. People know that some foods contain toxic constituents, he continued.
"Raw cassava, a staple food crop for millions of people, is of course very toxic, but can be safely consumed with appropriate processing to remove the toxic constituent, hydrogen cyanide," he said.
Another example is glycoalkaloid, which is found in potatoes, he said.
High levels of glycoalkaloid have caused skin rashes on produce handlers.
Increasingly, as plant breeders propagate new crops, they are aware of changes in chemical composition that could cause people to get sick, Munro said. Breeders try to develop a new strain that has desirable traits without producing unintended changes in either the pre-existing beneficial traits or composition of the resultant food, he said.
Companies that develop genetically modified foods have the same goal, Munro said. They assess the safety of the introduced genetic trait and the safety of the remaining edible portions of the plant.
That means companies make sure that the genetic material they are transferring does not come from a pathogenic source, a known source of allergens, or a known, albeit natural, toxin, he said.
Once they have assured the safety of the genetic material, they evaluate the potential toxicity and allergenicity of the gene product, such as the protein or enzyme, that the gene creates, Munro said. Finally, they make sure the edible portions of the plan are "substantially equivalent" to the traditional plant, he said.
Substantial equivalence means that "the composition of the plant has not been changed in such a way as to introduce any new hazards into the food derived from that plant or to increase the concentration of inherent toxic constituents," Munro said.
The genetically modified plant may be nutritionally different from the traditional plant and still be considered substantially equivalent, he added.
This safety evaluation is consistent with the principles and procedures outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Munro said.
It constitutes a "rigorous evaluation of the safety of a genetically modified food compared to its traditional counterpart and provides an appropriate paradigms for the assessment of the safety of genetically modified foods," he concluded.
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Last Updated on 3/23/00
By Karen Lutz