The safety of genetic engineering techniques for crop improvement received yet another endorsement in a report released today by the National Academy of Sciences.
The study found that genetically engineered foods do not generate compositional changes that are different from other plant and animal breeding techniques and policies that subject only genetically engineered foods to pre-market evaluation are "scientifically unjustified."
Adverse health effects from genetic engineering have not been documented in the human population, but the technique is new and concerns about its safety remain. The USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commissioned the National Academies to assess the potential for adverse health effects from genetically engineered foods compared with foods altered in other ways, and to provide guidance on how to identify and evaluate the likelihood of those effects.
The report offers a framework to guide federal agencies in selecting the route of safety assessment. A new genetically modified food whose composition is very similar to a commonly used conventional version may warrant little or no additional safety evaluation. But if an unknown substance has been detected in a food, a more detailed analysis should be conducted to determine whether an allergen or toxin may be present. Likewise, foods with nutrient levels that fall outside the normal range should be assessed for their potential impact on consumers' diets and health.
The NAS panel stopped short of calling for specific regulation of all new plant and animal varieties, but it recommending that federal agencies use the presence of intended or unintended compositional changes, and not the use of genetic engineering, as the trigger for regulation.
"This contradicts claims by anti-biotechnology activists who have tried to depict genetic engineering as uniquely hazardous," says Gregory Conko, Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "It also obviates calls for more stringent FDA regulation of bioengineered foods."
Jeffrey Barach, Vice President of Special Projects for the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), released a statement in support of NAS recommendations to continue additional research. In addition, NFPA agrees with the report's observation that safety evaluations for cloned animals should focus on the product itself, rather than on the process used to create such animals.
"NFPA also agrees with NAS that any cloned animals engineered to produce pharmaceuticals should be kept from entering the food supply," the statement says. "This is in keeping with NFPA's position on plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals, which is that there must be an absolute guarantee that no such plants or plant products enter the food supply."
Copies of Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects are available from the National Academies Press for $35.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy.