by David Accomazzo
The debate over whether to label genetically modified foods shifted a step away from disclosure today as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a draft guidance saying the agency will not require a label on food made from genetically engineered animals.
The draft will be open for public comment until Nov. 18.
The FDA will study all genetically modified foods for safety issues before approving them for market consumption, the draft said. There are no genetically engineered animal products on the market, the FDA's Web site said, although some products are undergoing a safety review.
"It is likely that for the first [genetically engineered] animal approval(s), we will convene a public advisory committee meeting prior to the completion of the approval," the FDA's Web site said.
The FDA will regulate any recombinant DNA modification under the animal as a "new animal drug" under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, even though some of the some of the genetic modifications might involve splicing the DNA of one animal into a completely different species. Examples include the insertion of the spider-silk protein gene into goats for the production of a filament-rich milk and the introduction of a mouse gene into pigs to alter the composition of pig manure.
The classification would allow manufacturers to avoid having to use a separate label for any products coming from genetically engineered animals. The FDA says the foods would undergo strict testing and that any approved foods would be safe for human consumption.
But that's missing the point, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union. Many label requirements have little to do with food safety.
"We require labeling of juices whether they come from concentrate or if they're fresh-squeezed or whether milk is homogenized or not, so along those lines, we think that all genetically engineered animals present in the food chain should labeled as such," Hansen said.
Other problems could arise if genetically modified animals get into the wild population, Hansen said.
It's called the Trojan Gene Hypothesis, Hansen said — the idea that the offspring of genetically engineered animals are weak. For example, some salmon are engineered to grow to larger sizes. Salmon choose their mates based partially on the size of the male, so the genetically altered fish would be preferable. However, genetically engineered fish have fewer offspring that have a lower survival rate, so the salmon population could decrease dramatically after only a few generations of breeding, Hansen said.