Labelled only as "amino acid and others"
On September 14, 2009, two new food additives from Ajinomoto were judged to be "safe" by the Expert Committee for Genetically Modified Food and Others at the Food Safety Commission (FSC). The appraisal was open for public comments and it seems likely that the two novel amino acids will be approved by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Labour by the end of November.
So far, several GMO food additives have been approved, but they were basically used for food processing, as in the case of enzymes like alpha amylase for improved productivity. There have been no cases of GMO food additives that are used directly as seasoning as is the case of amino acids. Thus, when Ajinomoto first submitted these GMO products, there were no established method for safety appraisal.
That was why the Food Safety Commission has published a "Directive for safety assessment of food additives which are produced using genetically modified micro-organisms and which are highly refined and have non-protein characteristics, including amino acids." (Many studies have verified that the process of genetic engineering can produce unpredicted toxins or allergens.)
The two GMO food additives FSC Expert Committee judged as safe are L-Glutamic Acid Sodium (GLU-No. 2 strain) and Aspartame-L-Fenylalanin (PHA-No. 2 strain). In the current food-labelling legislation, the former would be labelled only as "amino acid, and others" and would be used as a food additive in many foods.
The latter would be labelled only as Aspartame which is classified as an artificial sweetener. None of these will need to be labelled as GMO or otherwise identified as genetically modified under the current rules.
For what purpose is genetic engineering used in the production of these chemicals?
In the human gut, there are a number of different bacteria, including E Coli. These help to digest the protein we eat, be it fish or meat or other sources, by breaking them down to amino acids, making it possible for the body to absorb them from the intestine. At Ajinomoto Co., Inc. they figured out how to make use of this mechanism, using artificially cultured bacteria in large tanks. Presumably, by using GMO bacteria, they claim they can increase the productivity of the bacteria.
However, for all of those who are thinking about food, this latest development for the purpose of "improving" production cannot be regarded as safe. Was there something wrong with the former production methods?
We remember the "tryptophan affair" when many people fell ill and some died due to the production methods, at a time when tryptophan was sold as a supplement. L-Tryptophan is also an amino acid that can be produced using bacteria.
This incident was caused by Showa Denko Co. in 1988 and 1989 and most victims were Americans. 38 people died and more than 6,000 people fell ill. The cause was identified as several impurities, which were found only in the product made by Showa Denko.
The harmful impurities had begun to appear when genetic engineering was introduced in the production process, and they had not been eliminated from the final mixture. It was shown that this was possibly the reason the final product had become so harmful to humans.
It is clear that consumers will be paying a high price for the lack of thorough examination of how and why the tryptophan incident happened. Before GMO food additives are approved, their safety must be carefully appraised. At the moment, the Food Safety Commission has not been able to convince us that this is the case.