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Science panel urges food safety, cites risks posed by genetically modified crops


Science panel urges food safety, cites risks posed by genetically modified crops
Mike Toner
July 28, 2004

ATLANTA -- Unintended changes in the allergens, toxins and nutrients in genetically modified crops pose human health risks of uncertain magnitude, a panel of the National Academies warned Tuesday.

The academies' Institute of Medicine also reported that while the potential for human health effects appears greatest for genetically engineered crops, even conventional techniques that have been used to "improve" crops for centuries need some new form of government regulation.

"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," said Bettie Sue Masters, a University of Texas chemist who led the panel of scientists.

They were quick to point out that over the years, the vast majority of crop modifications -- traits for improved shelf life, flavor, color, texture and nutritional content -- have been beneficial.

The panel said genetic engineering is not an "inherently hazardous process" and that there was no clear evidence of any "serious health effects" caused by genetically engineered food crops -- even though millions of acres of transgenic corn and soybeans have been planted since the mid-1990s.

But the panel's food and health experts said modern biotechnology can alter crops so subtly and so swiftly that neither government nor the food industry is equipped to spot "the array of potential hazards" before they enter the food supply in the future.

"Products developed using biotechnology express a wide range of new features, some of which may be benign, while others, such as industrial or pharmaceutical, may pose a greater threat to food safety," the scientists said.

Food safety groups said the report shows the need for more oversight of genetically engineered crops.

The academies' report "says there are substantial gaps in our ability to identify changes in biotech foods or to determine the health impact of those changes," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.

The report was prepared at the request of the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the key federal regulatory agencies over genetically modified foods.

They are seeking a road map for future regulations.

"It's the product we need to regulate, not the process," said Jennifer Hillard, of the Consumers' Association of Canada.

Four years ago, U.S. agencies recalled more than 300 kinds of tortillas and other corn products when a genetically engineered strain suspected of being allergenic slipped into the food supply.

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