Food for All or Frankenfood:
The Genetically Modified Foods Controversy

Gene Media Forum
Media Luncheon Briefing
Syracuse University's Lubin House
11 E. 61 St.
6 January 2000
12 noon-2:30pm

Paul Raeburn, Technology editor, Business Week

Michael Phillips, Executive Director, Food & Agriculture, Biotechnology Industry Organization
Robert Herdt, Director, Agricultural Sciences, the Rockefeller Foundation
Rebecca Goldburg, Senior Scientist, Environmental Defense Fund

. . .

Norman Bauman: I saw the article in Science magazine in November by Dan Ferber on genetically modified crops ["GM Crops in the Cross Hairs," Science 286:1662-6, 26 November 1999], and it was pretty good.

And one of the things that caught my attention was a quote from Rebecca Goldburg, and she said, she was talking about--well you were talking about--the possibility that genetically modified proteins may have allergic reactions that may be different from the native proteins, they may have allergic reactions that you can't determine from the sequence, and this is a potential hazard.

And they quote you as saying that if you find a match, then you have a problem. If you don't, it doesn't say anything, in other words, you haven't established safety.

And then he quoted somebody else as saying that conventional foods already on the market, such as peanuts and Brazil nuts, pose much higher risks of allergies than GM foods, as do plants produced by classic breeding methods which introduce many potential allergins into the product.

And he says if the zero risk standard prevails we shouldn't put any new food on the market and we should get rid of a lot of old ones.

Now I thought that was a pretty good point and I was wondering whether that isn't true. How do you handle that?

Rebecca Goldburg: It's a point that comes across in that story but I, misinterprets my point.

I have never said that the major problem with foods genetically engineered that contain new proteins that may be allergenic means that those foods should be taken off the market, but rather that it necessitates a lot more labeling of genetically engineered food.

There are a lot of foods like peanuts which cause many dangerous allergic reaction in a reasonable fraction of the population but the way we as a society cope with hazards of those foods is to make sure that people who are food allergic can identify the foods that they should avoid. And that's done by labeling, so for example if I have a child who's allergic to peanuts, I know not to buy peanuts and peanut butter and I also look for labeling on cooking and candies and whatnot and I don't buy those.

The insidious thing about genetically engineered food is that if you put a new gene into it and genetically engineered foods aren't labeled there's no way for a potentially susceptible consumers to discriminate--

Bauman: [Interrupting Goldburg. She wants to talk about labeling, because that's her strongest argument, but that's not the critical question of how we establish safety. I concede to her the argument over labeling--because according to the medical principle of patient autonomy and choice, she's right.]

Excuse me, I think by this time everybody agrees that we should have labeling, because the consumer has to have the right to make his or her own decision.

The question is, what does the label mean? If we introduce a new gene into a food product, how do we determine that it's safe? And for example how do we determine that genetically modified soybeans are safe?

And my question for you I think is, what would it take to convince you that a particular genetically modified food is safe? What would it take to convince you that genetically modified soybeans are safe?

Goldburg: OK. Well clearly it's going to depend on the type of genetic modification. Way back in 1991 I wrote a paper with a colleague who was at the time a postdoc at Rockefeller University and the paper was called, Are BTK Plants Safe to Eat? In other words are crops with the bt gene in them safe to eat? And in that paper we laid out a series of toxicological tests that would be appropriate for genetically engineered crops and most of what I said in that paper still holds. So I feel that I have put forward some ideas already about what sort of testing should be done.

To my mind the real bugaboo with safety testing is the food allergy issue. It is possible to test a new protein introduced into food via genetic engineering for its allergenicity if that protein comes from a commonly allergenic food such as peanuts. And that's because there are scientists in this country who have in their freezers blood serum from people who have been confirmed as allergic to Brazil nuts or peanuts or one of 8 or 10 other commonly antigenic foods, so one can look for an antibody-antigen reaction.

The real problems come in when proteins are introduced to foods that come from less commonly allergenic food or non-food sources such as bt. And then there is no commonly accepted testing methodology for allergenicity. In other words there's no animal model for allergenicity. There's no predictive testing for toxicological endpoints.

To the industry's credit, the industry 5 years ago published an article, had a lot of work put into it, by some folks at Monsanto laying out a rather reasonable screening procedure for making educated guesses for when a protein might or might not be allergenic based on its biochemical characteristics, and that methodology seems reasonable but it's not equivalent to the sort of testing methodology we have for other toxicological endpoints, and it remains to be seen how good it is. Moreover it is not clear what one does if a protein fails one of these biochemical screens.

The EPA is now faced with just such a case, a so-called bt protein [Cry9C] that's been introduced to corn by a company AgrEvo [now Aventis] that has a biochemical characteristic that is associated with allergenicity. [See EPA background document on food allergenicity and comments from EDF. For a good industry statement, see SeedQuest ]

Bauman: Have genetically modified soybeans been tested according to your protocol? Are you satisfied that genetically modified soybeans are not allergenic?

Goldburg: I can't tell you that they are not allergenic. I can tell you that, and I assume your speaking of roundup ready soybeans.

Bauman: Or any of them.

Goldburg: I have not been through all the tests with the soybeans. my understanding is that the soybeans pass industry's screening procedure for guessing at allergenicity so I would say that the odds that they are allergenic are probably not high, although I can't say with confidence that they will not be.

Michael Phillips: Let's not forget the fact that FDA plays an extremely important role--

Bauman: [Interrupting Phillips, because none of the GM critics trust the FDA anyway.]

It sounds like the regulatory agencies and the food manufacturers have screwed up. They've exposed 250 million guinea pigs to these recombinant corn products and soybean products for years.

But it now looks like they're doing OK. They lucked out. There are no acute problems with these particular GM crops. And as far as anybody can see it's as safe as, uh, Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Can we now tell the Europeans that it seems to be safe? We Americans have taken the foolish risks and you don't have to worry any more because we haven't found any problems with GM foods on a pretty high level of safety. It's as safe as ordinary foods.

Phillips: As a matter of fact--

Bauman: [Interrupting Phillips again. Some people don't know how to shut up when they're winning.] I know what you're going to say. I'm asking Rebecca.

Goldburg: I asked a question somewhat like this earlier with ecological problems. I certainly say that, we certainly can't say there haven't been any ecological problems with genetically engineered products.

For food safety as I said earlier there is no problem that's clearly attributable to genetically engineered food but as I also said earlier we're just at the very beginning of these foods going to market.

There are a little over 40 of them that are now on the market. Most of them are commodity crops like corn, soybeans, canola and I don't find the fact that we don't have bodies in the street to mean that some fraction of foods in the future can't cause problems nor that even perhaps some foods that are now on the market won't cause more subtle problems that will take a while to detect, particularly because there's no labeling of genetically engineered foods or followup on safety and so on.

So I would not feel comfortable going to Europe and saying that these foods have a clean bill of health.

Bauman: No worse than Ben & Jerry's?

[Goldburg makes a joke but doesn't answer. In a conversation afterwards she concedes that she's not an immunologist so she can't evaluate the allergic hazards.

My followup question, if I had the opportunity, would be: So when you say "I can't tell you that they are not allergenic," what you mean is you don't know enough about immunology to tell whether it's allergenic or not? Do you know an immunologist who could evaluate the risk?

I like Goldburg, just as I like other anti-GM activists on a personal level, but if they're trying to destroy a billion-dollar industry, my job is to see whether they're giving a good scientific argument.]

For more information on the issues in this debate, see EPA background document on food allergenicity and comments from EDF, where Goldburg elaborated on this issue. For a good industry source, see SeedQuest's statement on Cry9c and SeedQuest generally. For more information on food allergies froma clinical perspective, see Food Hypersensitivity and Adverse Reactions: A Practical Guide for Diagnosis and Management, book review , N Engl J Med, 342(15) 2000 April 13.

I learned a lot about interviewing from lawyers--sometimes, but not always, we are after the same kind of information. Anti-tobacco litigator Stanely Rosenblatt described his interviewing techniques in the British Medical Journal 2000;321:322 (5 August) 2000;321:322 (5 August) , and in more detail in a transcript.

Here's great advice from a great trial lawyer: F. Lee Bailey once asked Edward Bennet Williams how he so often saved the day by pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the most propitious courtroom moments. Williams said: "Bring 50 hats and 50 rabbits to court and hope that you get lucky."