Genetically modified foods should be tested for potential health effects both before and after they become available to consumers, says a report published last week by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS research committee comprised 13 scientists specializing in allergenicity, biochemistry, toxicology, epidemiology, nutrition and other areas, and was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Currently, the actual testing is driven mostly by the industry [and not the USDA, FDA and EPA]," said Bettie Sue Masters, chair of the NAS committee and a distinguished professor in chemistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
While no such health effects have been reported yet—and genetically engineered canola oil, corn and soy are widely present in the global food supply—concerns remain about their potential.
"All evidence to date indicates that any breeding technique that alters a plant or animal-whether by genetic engineering or other methods—has the potential to create unintended changes in the quality or amounts of food components that could harm health," Masters said during a news conference. The panel defined genetic engineering as a subset of the many methods of genetically modifying plants or animals, including traditional cross-breeding.
The panel also concluded, however, that "targeted" genetic modification, which includes the most common type of genetic engineering—transfer of recombinant DNA between closely related species in an agrobacterium medium—is no more likely than traditional GM techniques, such as cross-breeding or simple selection, to result in unintended effects. When other recombinant techniques are used, or the species are distantly related, the risk of unintended effects increases.
Craig Winters, executive director of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, said, "We're glad this report came out, although it seems to be spun by [mainstream media] as giving a clean bill of health to GE foods."
Masters' view was less extreme. "We are saying that ? there should be no more alarm about GE food than there has been previously."
Premarket testing, the panel said, should include analysis of a GM food's macro- and micronutrient content, as well as any inherent toxins, allergens or substances that might inhibit the body's ability to absorb or metabolize nutrients. Any such information should be put into a database available to both industry and the federal agencies charged with regulating such foods.
"We need information on anything that would even hint at giving any changes in levels of toxicants, antinutrients, nutrients or allergens," Masters said. She recalled that potatoes with large amounts of solanine were marketed to disastrous effect—high intake levels of the alkaloid can be toxic. "That's a beautiful example of conventional methods of genetic modification that ended up giving a bad result, and it would have been caught with the kind of premarket screening we're talking about."
Despite technological advances that have made possible the detection of chemical and genetic changes in foods, the scientific community is still limited in its ability to understand what adverse health effects such changes might carry, the report said.
"The limitation is bioinformatics," Masters said, noting that a much greater volume of data needs to be accumulated before scientists can draw conclusions about safety.
Because of this limitation, it's also important that GM foods be tracked in the post-marketing phase as well, using bar code technology, labeling, consumer trend surveys and other methods, the committee said.
Masters emphasized, however, that this was not an implicit endorsement of the need for labeling GM foods. "That's another spin," she said. "We're saying that if something is showing even a beneficial effect ? one might want to post-market track that." She added, "Labeling is quite another issue. I think there could be studies done, and you could argue as a citizen that if you were—some might use the word guinea pig—and looking at something that could have a potential effect you would want to know that, but that's up to the agencies to determine."
Masters said the committee is hopeful that the report will effect change. "We hope this report will push the agencies to require that certain things be done."
Winters is skeptical. In his e-newsletter last week, he wrote, "Based on the track record of the government agencies that commissioned this report, it is unlikely they will suddenly change the way they have been dealing with genetically engineered foods."
Masters acknowledged that additional funding and research would be necessary to implement the committee's recommendations, but that it's possible to use some existing resources as well. Winters was nonplussed. In the meantime, he wrote, "People are being fed these risky foods that have never been adequately tested."