Biotech Foods Are As Safe, If Not Safer, Than Conventional Foods

DATE: Sept. 9, 2000

Biotech Foods Are As Safe, If Not Safer, Than Conventional Foods  

WASHINGTON—If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There’s a lot of wisdom in this suspicious, cynical cliche. Could a technology really offer the potential for non-allergenic foods and vaccines to prevent deadly diseases for mere pennies per dose, increased yields with environmentally beneficial farming practices, and healthier, more nutritious foods? French fries with less fat? Naturally decaffeinated coffee that tastes just like the “real thing”?

From a young age we’re taught to take product claims “with a grain of salt,” not to believe “everything you read,” and “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Is it any wonder consumers are wary of rDNA biotechnology-derived foods, with their promise to, among other things, feed the world? What’s the catch, consumers are asking.

The science behind rDNA biotechnology foods is substantial, complicated and diverse. The ability to transfer DNA from one species to another is mind boggling to some. Consumers have asked, “Can rDNA biotechnology-derived foods really be safe to eat?” Fortunately, scientists have already asked—and answered—this question.

“All of the existing foods produced using rDNA biotechnology have undergone a science-based safety assessment focusing on the characteristics of the product, especially the unique components,” said Dr. Dallas Hoover, a professor in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Delaware. Hoover chaired the expert panel that produced the safety section of the IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods.

The science-based safety assessment compares the rDNA biotechnology-derived food with its conventional counterpart to identify any potential differences that might present safety or nutritional concerns. Substances that are new to the food supply, potential allergens, changes in the concentrations of major dietary nutrients, and increased concentrations of antinutritional factors and toxins inherent to the food all trigger additional scrutiny. In fact, this safety assessment is more stringent than for foods produced using conventional cross-breeding techniques.

The appropriate federal agencies have reviewed all the rDNA biotechnology-derived foods on the market to ensure their safety. The safety and quality of their products are of paramount important to food manufacturers, and FDA ensures that the high standards for food safety are upheld.

Biotechnology processes actually tend to reduce risks because they are more precise and predictable than conventional breeding. Recombinant DNA techniques enable researchers to precisely identify, characterize, enhance, and transfer the appropriate genes. Cross breeding transfers uncontrolled and randomly assorted groups of genes, hoping the desirable ones were included.

“Considering that there are tens of thousands of the host organism’s own genes, the introduction by precise techniques of one or a few additional, well-characterized genes does not create an organism that is more likely to be changed in major physical properties or wholesomeness than an organism derived through traditional breeding. Indeed, because of the greater precision in selecting the desired trait, an adverse event is unlikely,” Hoover said.

The safety of rDNA biotechnology-derived foods has been extensively reviewed by a number of national and international scientific organizations, with a striking congruence in the resulting conclusions and recommendations. The use of rDNA biotechnology in itself has no impact on the safety of foods derived using these techniques. The related risks are not unique and tend to be associated with particular products and their applications, not with the production process or technology per se.

So consumers needn’t “go looking for trouble.” Recombinant DNA biotechnology-derived foods are as safe, if not safer, than conventional foods. Enjoy!

In an effort to contribute to a meaningful dialogue on scientific issues and consumer concerns about rDNA biotechnology, the Institute of Food Technologists, a non-profit society for food science and technology, conducted a comprehensive review of biotechnology. IFT convened three panels of experts, consisting of IFT members and other prominent biotechnology authorities, to evaluate the scientific evidence and write a report divided into four sections: Introduction, Safety, Labeling, and Benefits and Concerns.