Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune
Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune
October 5, 2000
Headline: A Much Higher Standard for Gene-Spliced Foods
Kraft Foods has recalled all Taco Bell Originals taco shells from markets because samples of the product contain a strain of gene-spliced corn not approved for human food use.
The recall followed the Sept. 18 report by a coalition of environmental groups that tests of the taco shells detected genetically engineered corn containing a protein called Cry9C. This bacterial protein, introduced into corn with gene-splicing techniques, has not been approved for human consumption because of a theoretical possibility that it could cause an allergic reaction. For that reason, the Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the use of the corn only in animal feed.
Under the circumstances, Kraft's voluntary recall is appropriate damage-control by a company that may be in violation of approval granted by a regulatory agency, in this case the EPA. There is more to the story, however.
The taco shells are actually far less likely than thousands of other products on the market to cause allergy or any other health problem. Occasionally, for example, there is contamination with peanuts — a known, potent allergen for some people — of a product like candy bars or cereal that is supposed to be "peanut-free." Unlike that situation, however, no allergenicity, toxicity or any other problem has been demonstrated with Cry9C or any substance similar to it. The EPA considers such molecules guilty until proven innocent.
Leaving aside the details of this case, the underlying problem is the EPA (and other government agencies) holding gene-spliced foods to an illogical, vastly higher standard than other similar foods, making it more likely that companies producing these foods will occasionally trip up, but in a way that is wholly inconsequential with respect to consumer safety — not unlike requiring that hand-picked and machine-picked apples be segregated in the supermarket.
The EPA policy in question requires the testing as pesticides of gene-spliced crop and garden plants such as corn, cotton, wheat and marigolds that have been modified for enhanced pest or disease resistance. The policy fails to recognize that there are important differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals and genetic approaches to enhancing plants' natural pest and disease resistance.
EPA's policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that it has galvanized the scientific community: Eleven major scientific societies representing more than 80,000 biologists and food professionals published a report warning that the policy will discourage the development of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use of synthetic chemical pesticides; increase the regulatory burden for developers of pest-resistant crops; limit the use of biotechnology to larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs; and handicap the United States in competition for international markets.
Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them less safe either to the environment or for humans to eat. Dozens of new plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional methods of genetic modification enter the marketplace each year, without scientific review or special labeling. Many such products are from "wide crosses," hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create a variety of plant that does not and cannot exist in nature.
While the changes may sound dramatic, the results are as mundane as a tomato that is more resistant to disease, or that has a thicker skin that won't be damaged during mechanical picking. Plants that have undergone those slight but important alterations have been an integral part of European and American diets for decades; they include corn, wheat, oats, rice, tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins.
Gene splicing is actually safer than hybridization, because its results are more precise, circumscribed and predictable, and because it takes advantage of the subtleties of plant pathology. The so-called "Bt corn" in the recalled taco shells is a good example. It was made by splicing in a bacterial gene that produces a protein toxic to corn-borer insects, but not to people or other mammals.
The gene-spliced corn not only repels pests, but it also is less likely to contain fusarium, a toxic fungus often carried into the plants by the insects. That, in turn, reduces the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, gene-spliced corn is not only cheaper to produce but is a potential boon to public health.
Yet, largely because it creates new governmental responsibilities, larger bureaucratic empires and bigger budgets, regulatory agencies have regulated gene-spliced foods in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way.
There is no way these conventionally produced foods could meet the requirements imposed on gene-spliced plants — for example, to specify the number, location, identity and function of the genes introduced, and to provide the genetic sequence.
Paradoxically, only for the more precisely crafted gene-spliced crops, new varieties are exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they go into the field or enter the food supply. In other words, from a scientific vantage point, federal regulators have the paradigm exactly backward.
Henry Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994 and is the author of To America's Health: A Proposal to Reform the Food and Drug Administration.