'Frankenfoods' -- Friend or Foe?

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This is Part 2 of a five-part series. Click here for Part 3.

May 22, 2001 - Call it 'Frankenfood' if you want, but genetically engineered food products are likely in your pantry right now. Most breakfast cereal contains corn that's been tweaked. Two-thirds of all processed food has some genetically altered ingredients.

Probably the most recognized genetically engineered crop is Starlink. The bioengineered brand of corn -- approved for use in animal feed only -- found its way into the human food supply last year. The contamination caused an upheaval because the corn contains a gene that allegedly triggered several allergic reactions, some quite severe. Though none of the reports of allergic reactions have yet to be linked to the Starlink corn, numerous products -- from taco shells to corn dogs -- have been recalled. So has all Starlink corn. But farmers are still finding traces of the modified corn in their crops.

Well, if chances are we've already eaten some kind of genetically modified food, is there really anything to be concerned about? The battle lines are drawn.

"Absolutely," Matt Rand, co-coordinator of the Genetically Engineered Food Alert Coalition, tells WebMD. "Currently, the way the regulation is set up there is no premarket safety testing by the [FDA]. It's all left up to the industry. But there are safety concerns. ... There is a significant amount of [genetically engineered food] out there. Unfortunately, consumers are not aware of what they are eating."

Other opponents of bioengineering argue that modifications may decrease antibiotic effectiveness or even trigger unexplored long-term environmental consequences -- such as making crops grow into "super weeds."

The numerous concerns have led some household names in food production -- like McDonald's -- to turn their backs on genetically altered foods. In McDonald's case -- bioengineered potatoes.

The FDA has strengthened regulations for bioengineered foods -- asking developers to notify the agency of their intent to market food or animal feed at least 120 days prior to launch. The agency also is requiring developers to provide "specific information" regarding any potential safety, labeling, or ingredient issues and will permit manufacturers of "genetically free" foods to label their products, saying they are free of genetically modified crops.

But crops aren't the only foods being tinkered with genetically. Salmon is the first genetically modified animal slated for Americans' dinner plates. Consumer watchdog groups have concerns about it as well.

The fish have an increased growth hormone, which speeds their growth, Rand tells WebMD. "These fish grow four times faster than normal fish. They don't grow any larger, but significantly faster. That's where the problem lies," he says. "These salmon have not been reviewed for their toxicity to humans."

Another big concern is environmental, he says. "These fish are being farm raised [in net pens] in the open ocean. The problem is that these net pens are not 100% tight; 115,000 salmon escaped in Washington in 1999. In 2000, over 300,000 salmon escaped in Maine waters. These were not genetically engineered salmon, but if they were to get out, wild populations of fish and salmon will be affected by these escapees."

According to a new study, Rand says, these genetically engineered salmon are 40 times more likely to mate because they grow so much faster. "If 60 ... [genetically engineered] individuals joined a wild population of 60,000 fish, the wild population would become extinct within just 40 generations. That's just if 60 fish escaped."

Over 30 other genetically engineered fish are also in development, Rand tells WebMD. "Those companies are watching what the FDA does very, very closely," he says.

Rand says that his and 60 other environmental, consumer, and fishing groups have filed a petition to the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other government agencies, demanding a halt on the domestic marketing and importation of genetically engineered fish until FDA adequately addresses impacts to both the environment and human food safety.

"The FDA will have to respond to our petition within 180 days," Rand tells WebMD. "We shall see what happens. These eggs have already been sold. Letters of intent have already been placed for 15 million biotech salmon eggs. So if these fish get approved, they will be quickly taking a major role in salmon production."

The scenario isn't as scary as it sounds, and won't affect humans who eat the fish, says Bill Muir, PhD, a professor of genetics in Animal Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "I don't know any reason why [genetically engineered salmon] would not be safe for people to eat, particularly this one. It has a gene from an ocean pout, a fish found in very cold waters -- all it's doing is ... [making extra] growth hormone."

Muir's group has outlined parameters the FDA can use to ascertain risk with this salmon -- measures of factors like survival to sexual maturity, age to sexual maturity, mating success, how many eggs fish produce, how long they live. These tests can be performed while the fish are still in captivity.

"It's my hope that they will become part of the regulatory process," says Muir. "My research dispels concern that we don't know how to evaluate risk. My methods are fairly well accepted by fellow scientists. I think it will actually result in increased acceptance of the technology rather than rejection."

Five federal agencies are reviewing this fish before it's approved: FDA, National Marine Fisheries Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corp of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, says Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for BIO, the biotechnology industry organization.

Meanwhile, the company developing the salmon -- Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., of Waltham, Mass. -- has decided to produce a sterile, female version only.

"This particular fish is created to be grown only in a container environment," says Dry. "It was not meant to be released into the wild. But if there is some freak accident [that it escapes], to prevent the fish from mating with other fish, it will be sterile and female."

"It's absolutely safe for people to eat," Dry tells WebMD. "It's no different from other fish. It's no larger than other fish. We've heard tales about super salmon. That's not accurate. This fish just reaches maturity sooner than other salmon. It doesn't get any bigger, just gets there faster."

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