Genetic Engineering: Fast Forwarding to Future Foods

By Henkel, John | FDA Consumer, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Genetic Engineering: Fast Forwarding to Future Foods


Henkel, John, FDA Consumer


Take a peek into the supermarket of the near future.

At first glance, products on display won't seem much different from those you are used to. Cucumbers. Peppers. Corn. They'll still be there. But amid all the produce and other kitchen staples, you're apt to find new versions of familiar foods--ones that are custom "built" to improve quality or remove unwanted traits. Insect-resistant apples, long-lasting raspberries, and potatoes that absorb less fat are among the more than 50 plant products under study now that are likely to reside soon on grocers' shelves.

These commodities will arrive courtesy of genetic engineering, a process that allows plant breeders to modify the genetic makeup of a plant species precisely and predictably, creating improved varieties faster and easier than can be done using more traditional plant-breeding techniques. Genetic engineering already is improving lives in areas such as disease diagnostics and treatments, but at the moment it is a fledgling economic force in the commercial food business.

Though genetic engineering promises better and more plentiful products, genetically engineered foods may encounter a few obstacles to widespread public acceptance. Some consumers, along with a few advocacy groups, have voiced concern about the safety and environmental impact of these new food products. Some urge an outright ban on any genetically engineered foods. Others support mandatory labeling that discloses the use of genetic engineering. Still others advocate more stringent testing of these products before marketing.

New Foods Safe

From the standpoint of the Food and Drug Administration, the important thing for consumers to know about these new foods is that they will be every bit as safe as the foods now on store shelves, and in some instances safer. All foods, whether traditionally bred or genetically engineered, must meet the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

To let both the public and companies know how these new foods would be regulated, FDA published a detailed statement in the May 29, 1992, Federal Register explaining how foods derived from new plant varieties--fruits, vegetables, grains, and their byproducts, such as vegetable oil--will be regulated under the act. The statement contains a thorough scientific discussion, complete with carefully designed flow charts, to help plant developers ensure food safety in genetically engineered products.

Present Situation

To understand how FDA will oversee the safety of these new foods, it helps to know how new foods reach supermarkets today. Each year, 10,000 to 20,000 new food products are introduced. In contrast, FDA expects only 100 to 150 genetically engineered foods to be introduced over the next five years.

Except for a handful of new "food additives" such as artificial sweeteners, which must receive premarket approval from FDA before entering the marketplace, most new foods are introduced under the "postmarket" authority of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Under this authority, foods made up of proteins, fats and carbohydrates with a history of safe use in food can be sold once companies are satisfied the new product is safe without first getting FDA permission.

This system, which has been in place for more than 50 years, has resulted in the world's safest, most abundant, and cheapest food supply. Should a problem arise with any of these products, FDA has powerful enforcement tools that enable the agency to seize a product as soon as a safety concern is identified.

To help assure the public that this system will work as well for genetically engineered foods as it has for the 30,000 products that can be found in the typical supermarket, FDA plans to require for the first five years that the sponsors of these products notify the agency before marketing these products. "This will ensure that FDA remains abreast of developments achieved through this rapidly evolving technology," says Jim Maryanski, Ph. …

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