Safe to eat, but safe to breed? GM animals on trial

Could genetically engineered farm animals release genes into wild populations? The question heads the list of concerns in a new report on biotechnology which, conversely, argues that there is no evidence as yet that cloned livestock are unsafe to eat.

The report, produced by the National Academy of Science at the request of the American Food and Drug Administration which is preparing legislation on cloned cattle, raises science-based concerns regarding animal biotechnology.

“As is the case with any new technology, it is almost impossible to state that there is no concern, and in certain areas of animal biotechnology we did identify some legitimate ones,” said John Vandenbergh, chair of the committee appointed by NAS.

The committee’s greatest concern is the potential for bred animals to escape and reproduce in the natural environment. GM insects, fish and animals that can escape easily and become feral are especially of concern, particularly if they are more successful at breeding and competing for food. On the other hand, genetic engineering can have adverse effects on the welfare of animals, where cloned calves and lambs have high birth weights and may have to be born by Ceasarian section. Most transgenic animals do not survive or are born with abnormalities.

Genetically engineered animals could produce low-cholesterol eggs, high-protein meat and milk containing medicinal drugs. However, the potential for allergens to be present in food products, where new proteins expressed by inserted genes could trigger allergic reactions, though difficult to quantify should be considered, warns the committee. Adequate controls should also be in place to ensure the carcasses of animals engineered for non-food products do not enter the food chain.

Although the committee was not asked to make policy recommendations, it suggested that the current regulatory framework might not be adequate. The FDA has asked the owners of cloned cows to hold off selling their products or breeding them until they receive regulatory approval.

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