Food altered by genetics is topic of forum discussion

Amy Olson

Information Age consumers face a bombardment of data to aid in making informed decisions, especially in the supermarket.
But ethicists say consumers need even more information besides fat content and calories. They say people should also have information about the genetic origins of their foods.
The issue rose to the forefront in the media recently, after several scientific, consumer and religious organizations sued the Food and Drug Administration in June to require labeling on certain genetically altered products.
At a symposium on transgenic animals and food production Friday, a director of a campus research center said informing consumers about the use of biotechnology research in food production is essential.
F. Abel Ponce de Leon, assistant director of the Food Animal Biotechnology Center and head of the Department of Animal Science, gave concluding remarks for a presentation by six researchers and ethicists from the United States and Canada. About 50 food and agriculture scientists attended the presentation, held at the St. Paul Student Center.
Ann Gibbins, professor of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, said at the conference that transgenic foods can either be made directly from whole organisms or by genetically engineering enzymes or proteins that are used to make some foods.
Gibbins said the cheese industry uses a protein called chymosin made synthetically by a genetic engineering technique called recombinant DNA. Chymosin helps break down milk proteins to make cheese.
While foods using genetically altered enzymes meet little resistance from consumers, the public has greater anxiety about eating food from directly engineered sources, said W. Steven Burke, senior vice president of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
Consumers have greater fears about consuming meat from genetically engineered animals than vegetables from genetically engineered plants, Burke said. But scientists say society has a lot to gain from overcoming the fear of altered animals.
Transgenic fish could be served on American tables within the next two and a half years, said Elliot Entis, president of A/F Protein, Inc.
Entis’ company developed a genetic engineering technique to make fish grow five times faster, reducing the time it takes to get fish to market from three years to 14 months.
Gibbins, a poultry specialist, said scientists should be able to transfer transgenic production techniques to chicken breeders within five years.
Scientists claim these foods are safe. But ethicists note the way scientists and non-scientists assess the risk of these foods differently.
Paul Thompson, professor of applied ethics at Purdue University, said at the symposium public fears about transgenic animal food sources might result from differences in how researchers and the general public assess risk.
Thompson said scientists assess risk from a rational perspective. Without information to rationally evaluate risk, non-scientists tend to assume transgenic products are risky. Genetic food labeling would provide consumers with information to choose between natural and transgenic foods.
In addition to fears of the unknown, Thompson describes what he calls the “yuck factor.”
“Pictures of headless mice in scientific America turn people off,” Thompson said.
“It takes years of research and work to develop these techniques,” Gibbins said, noting the long government approval process in most countries. “We can’t introduce a product without knowing a lot about it.”