by Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, August, 21 2002
Genetically engineered fish, shellfish and insects escaping into the wild and taking the place of their natural cousins is scientists’ biggest concern associated with advances in animal biotechnology, says a report released today by the National Academy of Sciences.
A panel of 12 scientists was asked to review current research on the issue of genetically modifying animals to produce improved food or biomedical products. This year’s report of goats that had been modified to produce spider silk in their milk is an example.
”There’s uncertainty about what happens when transgenic animals with attributes that give them advantages over wild animals get out into the environment,” says Michael Taylor, a member of the committee that wrote the report.
Other concerns include the possibility that transgenic-animal products might trigger allergies in people who eat them and the adverse effects of bioengineering on the animals themselves.
For example, biotech calves and lambs tend to be born later and bigger, resulting in difficult births often requiring Caesarean sections. And some biotech techniques cause an increase in the birth of deformed animals.
”Some of the results were not pretty,” says Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. ”You’re essentially creating animals that are pretty horrific and suffer a great deal.”
The academy’s report, written at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, raises questions about the adequacy of the current regulatory process for bioengineered animals. The report questions whether the agencies involved have the legal and technological capacity to deal with the issues that are sure to come up as this technology grows.
Currently, the FDA regulates transgenic animals under the New Animal Drug Approval Process. Transgenic animals themselves are considered a drug because they have been genetically engineered. But the agency is still working to craft its policies in this emerging field, says Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
He says the FDA is putting together policies so it can tell companies what research they will need to evaluate the safety of these animals.
In the minds of the committee members, that will most likely require added regulations, Taylor says.
”Society needs to look to see if it’s given FDA the tools it needs so it can protect against whatever risks are posed,” he says. ”Far better we ask the questions now rather than blame them five years down the road if we’re not happy with the job they’ve done.”
As for the future prospect of a nice roast hunk of cloned beef, the panel found that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that it’s dangerous to eat — but added that there isn’t a lot of data, so more research would be a good idea.
It’s not something likely to come up over dinner, however, because there are no transgenic-animal products in the USA’s food supply yet, though there are many in the testing phase. Policies aren’t yet in place, Sundlof says. And until they are, ”we are not able to approve for commercial use any transgenic or cloned animals.”