Strange New (Secret?) World of Genetically Engineered Animals

You may have heard of genetically modified (GM) plants’think soybeans?but did you know genetically engineered (GE) animals are coming down the pike? And if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has its way, you won’t know when food from GE animals are gracing supermarket shelves or be able to identify them. That’s because, as it did with plants, FDA put no labeling provision in the recently drafted guidelines for foods from GE animals.

Defining GE. 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 progeny could end up on your plate.) Proponents boast of characteristics that will make animals grow faster, resist disease, 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? Does the world really need transgenic animals in our food supply or is this just something that benefits corporations, not individuals?

Animals as 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; there won’t be a label to tell you how or why (or which) animals and byproducts have been altered.

Questions Abound. The biggest concerns about GE animals center around environmental and safety issues, such as how these animals will 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 self-regulation. EN thinks that is a 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.

EN Speaks Out. With so many environmental, safety and health questions unanswered, much less social and ethical issues, FDA has a long way to go before GE animals should be producing our food. Right now, EN urges consumers to speak up for clear labeling of GE animals, as well as strict controls on their safety and monitoring. Although the comment period for FDA’s draft guidelines ends before we go to print, you can still take a stance by writing directly to your Congressional representatives.

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