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Tagging urged to maintain consumer confidence in US food supply

By Jane Byrne , 14-Nov-2008
Last updated on 14-Nov-2008 at 16:07 GMT

In order to maintain the confidence of US consumers in the food supply when genetically engineered (GE) animals enter the marketplace, a national animal identification system would be required, claims a meat processor.

Scott Eilert, director of the meat technology department at Cargill, was speaking at a public debate on the commercialization of GE animals, organised by the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Center for American Progress (CAP).

The aim of the meeting, which was held earlier this week and included representatives of the US biotechnology industry, the food industry and consumer groups, was to assess the potential risks and benefits arising from the commercialization of these high tech animals.

Eilert said that meat processors want to ensure that any pre-market review of GE animals is thorough and transparent enough to allow consumers to continue to exercise their right to choose which products they wish to consume.

He added that such a review should take into account factors regarding food safety, animal welfare, health and nutrition as well as environmental impact.

New traits

Genetic engineering generally refers to the use of recombinant DNA (rDNA) techniques to introduce new characteristics into an organism.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), such animals could have new traits such as improved nutrition, faster growth or lower emission levels of environmentally harmful substances such as phosphate in their manure.

FDA guidelines

The CSPI moderated discussion took place as the public consultation period initiated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on its GE animals draft guidance comes to a close.

In September, the FDA released draft guidelines on the regulation of GE animals in the marketplace, which set out the requirements and recommendations for producers of GE animals and products derived from them.

The US Centre for Food Safety (CFS) said, at the time, that the FDA process evaluating the safety of GE animals had major deficiencies: “Under this draft, the public cannot know if the review of a product met the highest scientific standards until after its approval, and then they cannot avoid the product in the marketplace because it is not labelled.”

Milk producers

Jamie Jonkers, director of regulatory affairs at the US National Milk Producers Federation, who participated in the CSPI debate, also argues that a requirement for the labelling of GE animals and products should be included in the regulation.

He said that there were still significant hurdles to the introduction of transgenic animal products onto the marketplace with consumer acceptance levels and the reaction of international trading partners not quantifiable at this stage.

And Gregory Jaffe, director of the CSPI Biotechnology Project, claims that in order for consumers to be less sceptical about the technology, GE animal producers and other stakeholders in the supply chain need to instigate an education campaign to make the public more aware of the benefits of GE food products and the regulation involved.

“The industry needs to engage consumers prior to the FDA product approval procedure stage,” he said.

Omega 3 pigs

Randall Lutter, FDA deputy commissioner for policy, speaking at the release of the agency draft guidelines, said that genetic engineering is already widely used in agriculture to make crops resistant to pests or herbicides, while in food, the technology is used to produce microorganisms that aid in baking, brewing, and cheese-making.

“Many kinds of genetically engineered animals are in development, although none has yet been approved by the agency for marketing. For example, some pigs have been genetically engineered to contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids,” claims Lutter.

According to the FDA draft guidelines, in cases where the GE animal is intended for food use, the onus is on the meat producer to demonstrate that the food is safe to eat.

Dr Larisa Rudenko, senior adviser for biotechnology, FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, said that the agency will evaluate the particular risks posed by each line of animal, and will also ask producers to provide a plan of the controls they will be putting in place to ensure future GE animals have traits consistent with those that receive the initial FDA approval.

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