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GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD:
UNSAFE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE

By MARTHA R. HERBERT =
c.2001 Hearst Newspapers =

Bioengineering companies, the federal government, and even the
American Medical Association (AMA) are asking consumers to
take a leap of faith with respect to foods containing genetically
modified organisms (GMOs).

While defects in an experimental car would become quickly
apparent, it will take far more exhaustive genetic and
environmental testing before weknow whether or not a particular
genetically altered corn oil or potato is safe for human
consumption.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, recently
announced plans to approve new genetically altered foods:
All that is required is formanufacturers to notify the agency 120
ays before putting the product on the market and promise that it is
``substantially equivalent'' to a conventional counterpart. And
don't look for labeling on genetically altered foods and ingredients
_ the FDA has ruled that labeling is purely voluntary.

After years of evidence pointing to the risks of GMO
ingredients, the FDA appears to have no interest in testing to
protect consumers from known and potential risks.

``Substantial equivalence,'' an unsubstantiated hypothesis,
asserts that plants whose fundamental genetic structure has been
permanently altered are no different from naturally occurring
varieties. In making this claim, manufacturers only have to perform
cursory tests for safety, nutrition, flavor, and texture.

Although scientists are well aware that genetic engineering can
produce unexpected, often highly undesirable, effects, there is no
current testing or health monitoring to detect these health and
environmental curve-balls.

In 1989, for example, tryptophan, an essential amino acid sold
in the U.S. as a nutritional supplement, was manufactured in a new
way from a genetically altered bacteria. Over time, thousands of
people who tooktryptophan from this batch became ill, 1,500 were
permanently disabled, and 37 died.

Subsequently, very sensitive chemical testing showed that
although the tryptophan was 99.6 percent pure, and thus
``substantially equivalent,'' the genetically engineered bacteria
had unexpectedly introduced a tinyamount (0.01 percent) of an
extremely toxic Contaminant. If the FDA had insisted on more
thorough testing, using animal or human subjects, this product
would never have been allowed on the market.

The headlong race by the biotech industry to genetically modify
hundreds of commercially valuable plants is worrisome enough,
but the recent ``clean bill of health'' for these products by the AMA
is inexcusable. In sharp contrast, the British Medical Association
called for a moratorium on planting GMO crops in the U.K. several
years ago.

Even in this country, the National Environmental Health
Association passed a resolution calling for clear labeling of GMO
foods. Overseas, the 15-member European Union is about to impose
``the toughest legislation in the world'' on genetically engineered
organisms.

The recent declaration by the AMA's Council on Scientific
Affairs that foods with altered genes are completely safe runs
totally counter to the rising tide of world medical opinion. The
AMA's recommendation that ``there is no scientific justification
[now] for special labeling . . . of [such] foods'' was the product
of an uncritical examination of the few studies published during a
period when there has been no requirement and little fundial
corporate testing results that are unavailable for outside safety
verification. While scientists question how these in-house tests
are done, the AMA goes right along with the FDA, ignoring the
matter entirely. If the AMA were truly serious about upholding
``sound science'' to protect public health, it would acknowledge
that adequate scientific research has not been done, and that there
is no basis for assuring food safety.

Finally, the AMA has forgotten the physician's basic credo _
``first do no harm'' _ by timidly suggesting that the common use
of antibiotic resistancemarker genes to implant foreign genetic
material into cells should ``be avoided, if possible.''

The British Medical Association is very clear on this point:
These ``marker genes'' are capable of entering disease-causing
bacteria, making them, too, resistant to antibiotics and thus
harder to control. Still, the AMA reaches the astonishing
conclusion that there is ``no scientific justification for special
labeling'' of GMO foods.

It is unreasonable to ask the American public to risk so much _
with no choice in the matter _ when fundamental questions are still
unanswered. Until thorough and independent scientific research
provides genuine assurances about the long-range safety for health
and the environment of these unprecedented products, caution is
the only rational course.Martha Herbert is a pediatric neurologist
and researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston,
and a board member of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

NYT-04-04-01 1857EDT

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