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TMA Panel Concludes Genetically Modified Foods Are Safe

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Public Health Feature -- June 2002

By  Ken Ortolon
Senior Editor

Environmental watchdog groups created a national furor in September 2000 when they announced that traces of a genetically modified corn known as StarLink, which had not been cleared for human consumption, had been found in taco shells and other corn products.

Grocery stores across the country immediately began pulling those products off their shelves, commodities prices plummeted, lawsuits were filed, and a handful of Americans began reporting severe allergic reactions after eating products containing the corn.

Despite government tests concluding that the genetically altered corn was not responsible for the allergic reactions, Americans were left with considerable doubt about the safety of food products made from genetically modified crops.

Now, a special task force appointed by then-Texas Medical Association President Tom B. Hancher, MD, of Columbus, says the hysteria over StarLink and continuing concern over other genetically modified foods are misplaced.

Following a yearlong review of existing research and scientific literature on genetically engineered crops, the TMA Task Force on Genetically Modified Foods concluded that there is no scientific evidence that shows genetically modified foods released to market are unsafe to eat, but it recommended that they continue to be monitored. The task force's report, endorsed by both the TMA Council on Scientific Affairs and Council on Public Health, was presented to and approved by the TMA House of Delegates in April.

"When it was said and done, no published documentation, no literature throughout the country suggested that genetically modified foods were unsafe," said Houston urologist and TMA Board of Trustees member Paul Handel, MD, who chaired the task force.

The panel's findings are posted on the TMA Web site.

Consumers' Concerns

Dr. Hancher took office only a few months after the StarLink controversy arose. He appointed the task force immediately to review the existing research on genetically altered foods and give physicians solid information they could pass along to concerned patients. Dr. Hancher says his interest in the issue was piqued by questions he was getting from some of his patients.

"There was some concern as to whether these foods currently on the shelves in HEB in Columbus would be a potential harm," he said. "There were a lot of misconceptions on the part of consumers about whether they should avoid genetically modified foods. Because of that concern, I thought we needed to inform our physicians and our patients as to whether or not there truly was a potential for harm here."

Although millions of tons of genetically modified crops already are being marketed for animals in the United States each year -- including 50 percent of all soy and 38 percent of all corn planted in the country -- StarLink caused a stir when it was discovered in the human food supply. Developed by Aventis CropScience, StarLink contains the protein Cry9c, which protects crops against several insects. StarLink has been approved only for use in animal feed because Cry9c breaks down more slowly in the human digestive system than other proteins and is considered a potential allergen.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blood tests on 17 people who reported allergic reactions after eating corn products containing StarLink did not show any signs of antibodies from the protein, indicating that the reaction was not caused by Cry9c.

But that didn't end the controversy. Environmental and consumer groups sued Aventis for not keeping the corn out of the human food supply. Aventis, leery of liability if similar events occurred, ordered 5 million pounds of genetically modified rice buried in a Texas landfill.

Balancing Views

The TMA task force never set out to conduct any original research or endorse or reject genetically modified products. Instead, it reviewed existing research and scientific literature on the topic. To ensure a balanced approach to the issue, Dr. Hancher named representatives of a wide array of stakeholders to the panel, including physicians from both the Scientific Affairs and Public Health councils, Texas lawmakers, state Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, agricultural scientists from Texas A&M University, and representatives of the Texas Farm Bureau and the Consumers Union.

Dr. Handel says the challenge was to produce a meaningful report when members of the panel had strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Task force member Reggie James, director of the Consumers Union Southwest Regional Office, agreed.

"This is a tough issue," he said. "You have people who are proponents and you have people who are opponents and you don't have a whole lot of middle ground. So it was really hard to find experts who were disinterested but who would actually come forward and talk."

Still, the task force heard from numerous experts during a half-dozen meetings and several conference calls during its yearlong effort. Among them were representatives of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Institute of Food Technologists, and College Station-based ProdiGene, a research firm currently conducting experiments on using genetically modified foods to deliver vaccines or for other therapeutic purposes.

Show Me the Science

At the conclusion of its work, the task force reached the following eight primary conclusions:

  • No scientific evidence has been published that shows genetically modified foods released to market are unsafe to eat.
  • Genetically modified foods should continue to be studied and monitored for safety.
  • Consumers need to have access to credible and scientifically reliable information on genetically modified foods.
  • Currently, institutional and commercial practices and agreements may impede sharing of research results, which slows scientific progress. More effort needs to be made on sharing genetic research data.
  • Innovative partnerships between public and private entities should be established to encourage the ethical sharing of scientific research findings.
  • Rigorous, effective, and comprehensive governmental oversight is essential to the development of genetically modified products to ensure the highest level of public health safety.
  • The risks of any genetically modified food -- including the long-term effects of changing plant, bacterial, viral, and fungal flora -- must be weighed against the benefits that any new food has to offer.
  • For consumers to have confidence in genetically modified foods, they must see that the benefits outweigh the risks; such education must be made available in a nonbiased, scientific way.

Dr. Hancher says the task force did an excellent job in cutting through the controversy and laying the scientific evidence on the table.

"I am pleased that we can, with confidence, tell our patients that thus far there have been no adverse affects to humans regarding consumption of genetically modified food," he said.

Promise Versus Peril

But Drs. Hancher and Handel both say it is not enough to declare that genetically altered foods are safe. These foods and any new products entering the market must continue to be monitored closely.

"As with all technology, all inventions, all scientific advances, there are promises and there are perils," Dr. Handel said. "We've got to weigh each of them."

While Mr. James says he agrees with the task force conclusion, he says more stringent regulation of new technologies and products is needed to assure the public of that fact.

"I think the bottom line of the report was that right now we don't see any horrible dangers with the food that's on the market so far, but that there are some deficiencies in the regulatory oversight," he said. "There are some problems with how data are managed. There's not enough openness in the process."

Mr. James suggested that genetically modified foods should be subjected to an approval process similar to what newly developed drugs go through before reaching the market.

"I don't think it has to be as rigorous and I don't think it has to be as costly, but that is a good template," he said. "Right now, for food, the regulatory process is kind of minimal."

But task force member Tom A. "Andy" Vestal, PhD, associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural Education at Texas A&M University, says the commodities market will not bear the expense of that kind of regulatory process.

"When you are selling oats and wheat at the same price that you were selling it for in 1950, you can't afford that kind of rigorous regulation," Dr. Vestal said.

During a seminar at TexMed 2002 in April, Dr. Vestal pointed out that genetically modified foods already go through a 10-step regulatory process involving three federal agencies -- the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- before being approved for human consumption.

"I believe the [task force] recommendations clearly state that the health sciences community and the public are interested in the depth and rigor of research that backs up the safety of these kinds of products," Dr. Vestal said. "But we've got to evaluate where to draw the line on the level of total food safety. Where do we draw the line on cost versus benefit?"

Ken Ortolon can be reached at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; or by email at Ken Ortolon.     

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