Food Fax

December 1999

Joining the Half-truths of Genetically-modified Food
By Carol T. Culhane, P.H.Ec. MBA

And in this corner...
Canadians have recently been catapulted into confusion with the announcement by Canada's pre-eminent science educator and media personality, David Suzuki, that genetically-modified food (GM-food) has not been tested and that Canadians are guinea pigs in a massive experiment. "Not true" cries the biotechnology industry, adding, "they have been thoroughly tested for an average seven-to-eight year period." Who to believe?

A snapshot of the Whole Truth
The concept of "substantial equivalence" is used to evaluate the safety of food derived from GM. Chemical and toxicity analyses are conducted to determine if nutrients as well as non-nutrients are similar or substantially equivalent between the GM-food and its conventional counterpart. While acknowledging that "substantial equivalence is not a safety evaluation per se", a 1996 FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Biotechnology and Food Safety concluded that the procedure provides equal or increased assurance of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified plants as compared to foods derived by conventional means. However, in cases where analysis revealed no similarities or defined differences, a more extensive safety evaluation would be required, including in vitro and in vivo testing. See: www.fao.org/es/esn/biotech/introduc.htm

Defined Differences
Variances are assessed. When Calgene sought FDA approval for sale of the FlavrSavr� tomato, a higher level of pectin was found than in conventionally bred tomatoes. Even though pectin is GRAS in the US, a safety evaluation of the higher amount of pectin in the FlavrSavr� was conducted.

Enter the Half-truths
When Dr. Suzuki states that the GM-food has not been tested, he suggests these products have entered the market without any assessment at all. On the other hand, the biotechnology industry in response does not distinguish between crops and food, or between the many years of controlled agronomic crop testing and the non-clinical examination of the resultant food.

As Guinea Pigs
If we were being treated as guinea pigs, GM- food would be identified in the food chain in some way so as to measure cause and effect, and a Temporary Marketing Authorization would be in place. Such was the cautious introduction of aspartame into the Canadian market in the early 1980's. In the same vein, when the biotechnology industry claims that not one sickness has stemmed from ingestion of GM-food, the statement cannot be substantiated, since the relationship between cause and effect cannot be measured without identification (i.e. labelling).

Insight and The Whole Story
Consumers are confused and appear to sense there's more to the story. Geneticists on each side of the issue seem to be unfamiliar with the intricacies of the food sector, including safety testing, legislation and buyer behaviour. FF

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