Health Next


What's In Your Food?

  The prospect of eating food that has been genetically engineered is an alarming one. Yet in a few years, David King claims, so called ordinary food like bread and potatoes is likely to be genetically engineered. When it happens we may not even be aware of it. The debate over whether such foods should be labelled or not is a hot one. Genetic engineering could produce the biggest food scare of all.
By David King  
...genetic engineering could be the biggest food scare of all.

Tomatoes that don't go soft, low fat chips, leaner meat, even food that will stop you getting cancer: these are just a few of the items on the menu at the biotechnology cafe. In the next few years, everything from staples of our diet, like bread and potatoes, to exotic fruits and vegetables will be genetically engineered. But will we know? The question over whether genetically engineered foods should be labelled has become one of the most hotly contested of all the debates over biotechnology. With several new engineered foods recently approved, and the EU poised to create new rules, it is a good time to re-examine the issues.

Ask the average person if they would like to eat food that has been genetically engineered, and they are most likely to make a face. On the whole, people don't like to feel that their food has been messed around with, particularly by scientists. There is a psychological gulf between the everyday world of food, which is supposed to be under our own control, and the shiny hi-tech world of science, populated by very clever people who are most definitely not under our control. It is not surprising that scientific innovations like additives and irradiation have led to a lot of bad publicity for the food industry; genetic engineering could be the biggest food scare of all.

Consumer boycotts

There is no doubt that the biotechnology industry's reluctance to put the words 'genetically engineered' on food labels is based on fears of a consumer boycott. Yet the evidence that consumers would not buy genetically engineered food is not clear. Although the polls show a clear demand for labelling, they do not suggest that most consumers would automatically reject genetically engineered food. In fact, most polls show that there are a variety of reasons for, and degrees of hostility to, genetic engineering. There are some people who are opposed to the technology per se, perhaps for moral or religious reasons, but most people react differently to different types of genetic engineering. For example, far more people disapprove of genetic engineering of animals than of plants.

But whichever polls you use, it is clear that a substantial proportion of people do want to know if genetic engineering has been used in the production of a food. The interest in food production processes is a central feature of 'green consumerism.' Green consumers want information on production, in order to be sure that the process does not damage the environment or harm the welfare of animals.


Process or product?

For the food industry, labelling related to its production processes is anathema. It fears that labelling of genetically engineered food will lead to demands from consumers for information and labelling on other aspects of food production. Thus, according to many industry commentators, all that matters is the chemical composition of the food. If there are no 'significant' changes, or the food is 'substantially equivalent' to the unmodified food, there is no need for labelling. (This would include all those crops engineered for agricultural purposes, such as herbicide resistance, rather than for improving things like flavour or nutrition.)

Likewise, where the genetic engineering has been used during in-processing of food processing (e.g. making cheese), but the product itself is identical or very similar to the normal product, industry views labelling as irrelevant and unscientific.

The approach of paying attention only to the chemical composition of the product is part of the biotechnology industry's general insistence that the process (genetic engineering) is irrelevant, when it comes to regulating products. Since 1990, when the EU passed key directives which regulate genetically engineered organisms because they are genetically engineered (i.e. process-based regulation), industry has been making strenuous efforts to ensure that genetic engineering should not itself be seen as a problem requiring special attention.

When considering the safety of new foods, it makes some sense to concentrate mainly on their chemical composition. Even here, there are arguments about unknown effects of manipulating and inserting genes which make it reasonable to assess the safety of all genetically engineered food. But labelling is another matter entirely. The purpose of labelling is not to inform consumers about safety concerns; if the food may be dangerous to more than a tiny percentage of consumers (e.g. those with allergies to particular foods), then the food should not be placed on the market at all. Labelling is provided in order to give the public information that it wants.

If the public wants information about genetic engineering, then, say consumer organisations, it has the right to that information, period. From this perspective, industry's insistence that information about genetic engineering is irrelevant is unacceptable paternalism, which merely serves as a cover for secrecy. The consumer organisations point out that there are precedents for process labelling, including free range eggs. If we are to have a free market, based on consumer choice, they argue, then surely consumers must have all the necessary information in order to allow them to make their choice?


Practical problems

Apart from the theoretical and political arguments, the biotechnology industry has been quick to point out some of the practical difficulties of labelling, particularly with processed foods. Firstly, many crops are traded as commodities; the produce of many farms is mixed together by the processors or traders. If some farms grow genetically engineered crops, while others do not, it will be difficult to trace which processed foods come from genetically engineered crops. No doubt, tests could be devised to detect differences, or alternatively, systems could be set up to segregate genetically engineered and regular crops. Either option would be expensive for the food industry, and no doubt the costs would be passed on to the consumer. The second problem is almost philosophical: in a processed food, what percentage of the food does an engineered ingredient need to be to justify labelling?

Contrived solutions

Faced with the conflicting political demands of consumers and the food industry, the British government, in the shape of MAFF's Food Advisory Committee (FAC), has attempted various compromises. In 1993, it issued a consultation paper, and at the same time set up an 'ethics committee', chaired by the Cambridge theologian, John Polkinghorne. Although there were some pseudo-ethical pretexts for setting up this committee, it is clear that its primary function was to deal with the political hot potato of labelling genetically engineered food, by changing the focus of the discussion to 'ethics'. Accordingly, the committee addressed the ethical conundrum, which had never, until that point, been seriously raised in public debate, of whether, for example, eating food with human genes in it constituted cannibalism.

The outcome of this process was the 1994 FAC guidelines, which are still in force. The FAC has approved the sale of several genetically engineered foods, according to its guidelines, with no requirement for labelling to indicate that they are genetically engineered (see table page 8; in fact the FAC has never required labelling of any genetically engineered food). Only a small subset of genetically engineered foods need to be labelled in any way:

- foods containing genes of human origin

- foods containing genes from animals subject to dietary (kosher, halal, etc) restrictions

- plant foods containing genes of animal origin

Since the main concern of the public is seen to be the actual eating of bits of humans, or restricted animals, if the inserted gene was destroyed during food processing, there is no need for labelling. The proposed wording does not mention the words 'genetic engineering'.

'Super-salmon' come to Scotland and Chile

A Scottish company, Otter Ferry Salmon Ltd. plans to hatch genetically engineered salmon which grow up tow ten times faster than normal salmon, and to export them to Chile. The drastically accelerated growth is achieved by injectingw atlantic salmon eggs with growth hormone genesw from chinook salmon. _______________________

Political realities

It is difficult to believe that the current FAC guidelines will stand the test of time and market forces, since they exclude so many foods, including all those already approved, from labelling. Even more fatally, they are based, like the argument that process is irrelevant, on a paternalistic concept of what the public wants, and has a right to know. The public is unlikely to be satisfied with a set of rules which result in some products being labelled and others not, in a way that is difficult to understand unless you are a member of the government committee that has drafted them.

In the end, it is likely that the political pressures on food manufacturers will mean that a far greater number of foods will be voluntarily labelled than will be required by the current British government guidelines. Both food companies and supermarkets are beginning to realise the risk of the public's outrage, if it thinks that companies are trying to introduce genetically engineered food onto the market by stealth. In fact, the damage which would be done to companies by accusations of secretiveness would probably be far worse than the damage due to selling genetically engineered food. Supermarkets are especially at risk from a consumer backlash, and, having no investment in the technology, have no interest in alienating their customers. The Co-op (a British supermarket chain) has already decided its own voluntary labelling policy, which includes labelling cheese produced with engineered chymosin. (The cheese apparently sells well.) In the long run, if consumer groups publicise what companies are doing, the other supermarkets will probably be forced to follow suit. Inevitably, as labelled genetically engineered foods come onto the market, a market will develop for foods labelled: 'Contains no genetically engineered ingredients'. The disadvantage of market-driven labelling, rather than a uniform scheme, would be a confusing proliferation of different labels, and no certainty that all relevant foods would be labelled.
  Taken from GenEthics News, Genetic engineering, ethics and environment, an independent bimonthly newsletter. Issue 7 July/August 1995. Editor: David King. PO Box 6313, London N16 0DY, England.