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Should We Fear Our Food?

Genetically Engineered Corn continued...

The Potential Danger
Inserting new genes into a plant's code causes specific changes in proteins that typically allow the crop to survive adversity, such as a dousing of weed killer or a swarm of attacking caterpillars. While genetic engineering seems vaguely creepy to the average layperson, some scientists raise specific concerns — their biggest worry being that genetic tinkering could cause new food allergies, which occur when the immune system overreacts to proteins. Researchers have long known that putting genes from an allergenic plant into a nonallergenic one can result in an allergenic plant for those who are sensitive. Now, a 2005 Australian study finds that even a gene exchange between two nonallergenic plants can create a plant that triggers an immune response in animals. "It's a jump to say an immune response in lab mice translates to allergies in people," says Mellon. "But the research certainly raises that possibility."

Biotech defenders say there's no cause for concern. To date, not one confirmed food safety incident related to bioengineered food has occurred anywhere in the world, says Michael Phillips, Ph.D., vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group that promotes the industry. In fact, he says, research now under way will more likely make natural allergies to foods a thing of the past — by engineering known problem proteins out of plants.

Should You Worry?
The argument that bioengineered food raises allergy risks is plausible, but even critics concede there's no evidence of a real threat. Still, they argue that the government isn't looking hard enough for problems. FDA officials say they thoroughly review industry data and evaluate potential allergy risks before food products are marketed. Says Laura Tarantino, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety: "We rely on the best science available, and I'm confident that foods made with genetically modified crops are safe."

Viruses in Cold Cuts

In 2006, the FDA gave the green light to spraying foods like deli meats and hot dogs with bacteriakilling viruses to protect against listeria, bacteria that affect some 2,500 people a year, a third of them pregnant women, and kill as many as 500 people a year. The viruses — known as bacteriophages, or phages — would glom on to highly targeted strains of listeria that could infest meats after they've been cooked and destroy them before you open the package.

The Potential Danger
This technology is so new — it's several years from hitting shelves — that advocacy groups haven't weighed in, and they may not, as the process seems to be safe. "In Russia, phages have long been used instead of antibiotics," says Randall Huffman, Ph.D., vice president of scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation in Washington, D.C. Still, there's an "ick" factor in deliberately coating food with viruses, and some bloggers have speculated that phages could cause illness.

Should You Worry?
The question isn't whether bacteriophage treatment is safe, but whether it's palatable to consumers. Because phages would be considered a food additive, their use would be strictly regulated, and treated products would be labeled. "Bacteriophages are harmful only to the specific bacteria that nature designed them to kill," says Huffman. "But it'll take a lot to convince industry and consumers that they're a feasible food technology."

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