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Potential dangers in modified foods seen

The federal government and industry should step up efforts to spot potential hazards in all genetically modified foods before they reach the marketplace, a National Research Council panel concluded yesterday.

In a report likely to re-ignite a long-smoldering debate between agricultural interests and critics of genetically engineered foods, scientists said there's a potential for danger whenever the genetic makeup of a food is deliberately changed.

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"All evidence to date indicates that any breeding technique that alters a plant or animal - whether by genetic engineering or other methods - has the potential to create unintended changes in the quality or amounts of food components that could harm health," said Bettie Sue Masters, the University of Texas chemist who headed the group.

With skepticism about genetically engineered crops and animals running high abroad and among a small group of vocal critics here, three federal agencies asked the National Academy of Science to devise an approach for screening all genetically modified foods before they reach the market.

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Although the panel of 14 experts said it found no evidence that genetically engineered foods have harmed humans, it recommend that government agencies and food producers:

Update the science they use to identify toxins or other new substances in all genetically modified foods, and to spot changes in the amounts of those and other compounds that could [See Genetics, 9a] [Genetics, from Page 1a] affect human health.

Develop food databases that producers and regulators can use to compare newly modified foods against established varieties and to assess potential health impacts.

Improve public health surveillance to identify any problems after a genetically modified food product has been marketed.

The panel also called for a "broad research and technology development agenda" to clarify the connections between what's in our food and how it affects our health.

"Although current analytical methods can provide a detailed assessment of food composition, limitations exist in identifying specific differences in composition and interpreting their biological significance," the report said.

The panel included specialists in food science and human nutrition, food policy, epidemiology, plant science, pharmacology, consumer issues and molecular biology.

Yesterday's report includes a detailed "framework" to guide those assessments and decisions by regulators to prevent foods made with genetically modified crops from coming to market until they can be evaluated.

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The guidelines would also alert authorities to any unexpected problems that arise after a food has been marketed.

"This approach has not been used up to now to evaluate any of the genetically modified or genetically engineered products currently on the market," Masters said.

Groups opposed to genetically engineered crops were heartened by the report, saying it confirmed many of their long-term concerns.

"The NAS report tells us we're eating potentially harmful genetically engineered foods that we don't know much about," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group critical of the government's attitude toward genetically modified crops.

Jeffrey Smith, author of Seeds of Deception, a book critical of the GM food industry and the FDA, said he was "gratified to see that they acknowledge that there have not been sufficient tests done on the health effects of GM food. There's plenty of evidence to show that many of these foods are unsafe."

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, at least 40 genetically engineered crops are currently marketed in the United States, including corn, soybeans, canola, tomatoes, squash, cotton and beets. Most genetic modifications make plants more resistant to weed-killers and pests.

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The safety of genetically engineered foods has not been nearly as controversial in the United States as it has been in some other parts of the world. European consumers have been particularly suspicious - although the European Union recently ended a five-year moratorium on marketing of new GM foods.

Some countries ban the import of genetically engineered foods, closing important markets to large food producers, mostly in the United States.

The National Academies' panel said genetic engineering - the introduction of new traits through recombinant DNA technologies in the laboratory - "is not inherently hazardous."

However, it said, "the products of this technology have the potential to be hazardous if inserted genes result in the production of hazardous substances."

The panel noted that the EU evaluates all genetically "engineered" food products - those with new traits spliced into their DNA - before they can be marketed. But the EU exempts all foods genetically "modified" using other techniques.

The latter category includes thousands of food products developed by traditional cross-breeding or more modern technologies, such as "mutagenesis," genetic alteration created by chemicals or radiation.

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It's a false distinction, the panel said.

"As with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health."

The current system for evaluating the safety of new foods is inadequate because it focuses on the products' intended and predictable effects on human health, the report said.

It recommended a system designed to identify any genetic modifications that might cause unexpected and unintended health consequences.

The report cited the example of the Lenape potato, a variety created by traditional cross-breeding, that had to be withdrawn from the market because it turned out to have dangerously high levels of a toxin called solanine.

The proposed assessment system would use advances in analytical technology to profile thousands of components in food products, measure the handful that are potentially harmful and then compare those levels with foods already safely on the market, the panel said.

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New food products, Masters said, should be evaluated "on a case-by-case basis" to determine whether there is cause to order a full safety assessment.

"Some of those [genetic] changes may be totally irrelevant," Masters said.

It would be up to federal regulators to ask producers for more information, to withhold a product from the market, or to require a product to be tracked for health impacts after it is marketed.

Panel members did not attempt to estimate the costs to the food industry or the government of the stepped-up food-safety assessments they're recommending.

But panel member Jennifer Hillard, a former vice president of the Consumer's Association of Canada, said the panel did not believe its recommendations represented a "regulatory burden."


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