Genetically Engineered Foods: Fears & Facts

By Sudduth, Mary Alice | FDA Consumer, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Genetically Engineered Foods: Fears & Facts

Sudduth, Mary Alice, FDA Consumer

Genetic engineering of fruits and vegetables and FDA's policy concerning these foods have been the subject of many consumer questions recently. To help answer the questions, FDA Consumer writer Mary Alice Sudduth talked to James Maryanski, biotechnology coordinator in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Q: what is "new biotechnology" in reference to food plants, and how does it differ from old biotechnology?

A: All plant breeding involves genetic manipulation of plants. There are hundreds of new plant varieties introduced every year in the United States, and all have been genetically modified through traditional plant breeding techniques-- such as cross-fertilization of selected plants--to produce desired traits. This is "old biotechnology."

The new biotechnology--known vanously as gene splicing, recombinant DNA, or genetic engineering--is actually an extension of traditional plant breeding. It involves direct modification of DNA, a living thing's genetic material. This new technique is more precise, making it possible to direct and predict changes without introducing extraneous, undesirable traits. The new technique also will allow scientists to introduce genes from essentially any organism into a plant.

Q: why do we need these plants and the foods they produce ?

A: Plant breeders have a limited pool of genes--and, therefore, traits--available for use in improving plants. By looking at bacteria and animals, scientists can find other traits that may expand the number of potentially useful traits. These may include size, solids content, or resistance to certain viruses or fungi.

Q: Under what circumstances will FDA require labeling of genetically engineered foods?

A: One important area is that of potential allergens. If a gene from a food that commonly causes allergic reactions, like fish or peanuts, is inserted into tomatoes or corn, where people would not expect to find allergens, then the vegetables would have to be labeled to alert sensitive consumers. If companies can demonstrate scientifically that the allergenic component was not transferred to the vegetable, no special label will be required. FDA's policy states that proteins taken from commonly allergenic foods are presumed to be allergens unless demonstrated otherwise.

Labeling also could be required if the nutritional content of the food is changed. Tomatoes are a major source of vitamin C, and if someone develops a tomato that no longer contains vitamin C, then that will have to be disclosed. So we envision a number of circumstances where labeling will be necessary, and we'll use the same labeling regulations we've always used under the FD&C Act. We've invited public comment on this issue, because we anticipate consumers will have diverse opinions about genetic engineering and about what information should appear on labels.

Q: FDA has emphasized the importance of proper labeling of foods and has initiated legal action against certain products--Citrus Hill "fresh" orangejuice, for example--because of misleading labeling. How does this differ from labeling biotechnology-derived foods? Isn't the fundamental issue the same--full disclosure?

A: The law says labeling for foods must disclose information that's material, as well as avoid false or misleading statements.

It's our view that the method by which a plant is developed by a plant breeder is not material information in the sense of the law. For example, we do not require sweet corn to be labeled "hybrid sweet corn" because it was developed through cross-hybridization. And plant breeders have many other traditional techniques through which they coax nature to change genes that would not occur otherwise. A process called somoclonal variation allows breeders to take advantage of natural mutations in plant cells that produce desired traits. Through embryo rescue, breeders nurture embryos produced by crossing two plant varieties that would not breed naturally, producing potentially useful plants that would not have survived on their own. …

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