Advances in animal biotechnology are coming quickly, and National Research Council investigators fear that the current regulatory system may be insufficient to deal with food and environmental safety issues raised as cloning and genetic modification of food species becomes more common.
"The current regulatory framework might not be adequate to address the unique problems and characteristics associated with animal biotechnologies," said John G. Vandenbergh, Ph.D., the NRC's chairman of the Committee on Defining Science-Based Concerns Associated with Products of Animal Biotechnology and professor of zoology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "The responsibilities of federal agencies for regulating animal biotechnology are unclear."
"We also had a concern about the legal and technical capacity of the agencies to address potential hazards, particularly in the environmental area," Vandenbergh said as he presented the research in late August.
In a study sponsored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, academics reviewed scientific research and determined no evidence exists yet that suggests cloned animals are unsafe to eat. But they also said not enough research has been conducted to conclude that bioengineered animals are safe additions to the food supply.
"American consumers don't want to be the guinea pigs," Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, said after the research was released. "There may be no harm in eating cloned animals, but we don't know for certain. Until there are double-blind, peer-reviewed human feeding tests, we're just assuming."
The FDA asked for the study as part of its preparation to issue a rule on the safety of bioengineered animals, particularly cloned cattle. But other transgenic species that may be more adaptable pose more concern, the researchers said.
The NRC study, "Animal Biotechnology: Science-Based Concerns," identified the potential dangers of tinkering with the genetic makeup of a number of food species. The group's top worry was about the ability of some species—salmon, for example—to escape and breed with or outcompete wild populations.
Aqua Bounty Farms, based in Waltham, Mass., has developed a transgenic salmon that reaches selling weight in about half the time it takes a normal salmon. And though the company has pledged to grow only sterile salmon in their Atlantic fish farms, both environmental activists and the researchers are concerned about what happens if the salmon escape the farm pens.
"Transgenic salmon have at least reasonably strong survival-type fitness, they compete well for food and many are able to pass on the transgene," said committee member Eric M. Hallerman, an associate professor in the department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. "But different studies showing what the fitness of these animals in the wild and the evolutionary consequences of that transgene being introduced [to the wild salmon population] are still ahead of us."
Friends of the Earth hopes it never reaches that point. In addition to working to ban the release of genetically engineered fish into U.S. waters, the environmental advocacy group has mounted a campaign to get grocers and restaurants to agree not to sell transgenic fish if they are approved. So far, Campaign Coordinator Lisa Ramirez said, several hundred, including a couple of large naturals chains, have signed.
"It's a huge unknown that we should not have to face with our people and our waters being the experiment," she said.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 14