Beware of Cloned Meats!

US Scientists Warn of Dangers of GE Animals
Panel Identifies Gene-Altered Animals' Risk
Report Notes Benefits, Oversight Needs

By Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Genetic manipulation of animals poses serious risks to the environment and potentially to human health, and federal efforts to manage those risks are disorganized and probably inadequate, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday.

In a long-awaited report, the nation's premier scientific body identified a slew of concerns relating to the biotechnology industry's efforts to clone animals and to manipulate their genes. The escape of such animals into the wild could alter species or even wipe them out, the report said, adding that the introduction of gene-altered meat, milk or eggs into the food supply could harm people unless managed carefully.

Despite those concerns, though, the report did not call for a wholesale rejection of cloning or genetic manipulation. To the contrary, committee members noted many potential benefits of animal biotechnology, including cheaper, more healthful food and new drugs and medical treatments that could save human lives.

The report, which identified many of the theoretical risks and pointed toward ways of minimizing them, is an effort by the nation's scientific establishment to help regulators and the public catch up with a fast-moving technology.

A handful of cloned animals have already been transferred to American farmsteads, and products derived from them or their offspring have been held out of the food supply only because companies and farmers are complying with informal government requests.

Companies have created animals that make human drugs in their milk, and they are working on pigs whose hearts or livers could be transplanted into human patients to replace failing organs. Thousands of other research projects along these lines are underway.

Although the committee identified various risks to people from animal biotechnology, those were generally perceived as mild to moderate, the report said. It called for renewed efforts to be sure gene-altered foods don't create allergic reactions that could sicken or kill people, for instance. And the committee said assiduous efforts must be undertaken to be sure milk or eggs containing human drugs don't wind up in the food supply.

On one of the most-discussed issues of the day -- whether meat or milk from cloned animals and their offspring should be allowed into the food supply -- the committee found almost no cause for alarm and said such food was highly likely to be safe. It did call for studies to be sure such meat and milk don't differ markedly from unaltered food.

The committee's most serious concerns were environmental, and they focused particularly on genetically altered fish and insects, which can escape easily, are highly mobile and can set up breeding populations in the wild. Fast-growing gene- altered fish that escaped might easily outcompete wild cousins and drive them to extinction, the committee said.

The committee cited insects as another example. Researchers are trying to create a mosquito that can't transmit malaria to people, for instance. But the malaria parasite helps hold mosquito populations in check, and replacing wild mosquitoes with malaria- resistant strains might actually lead to more mosquitoes and greater transmission of mosquito-borne ailments other than malaria, the committee noted.

This kind of research has provoked fear, controversy and, at times, wild investor enthusiasm. Both sides in the debate over animal biotechnology welcomed the report yesterday.

Skeptics of the technology said it confirmed some fears. "It certainly brings into question the use of this technology in our food," said Matt Rand, campaign manager for biotechnology at the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

Biotech advocates said the report showed that the potential problems, though real, are not sufficient grounds to halt their research, and advocates predicted the report would become the basis for new federal policies.

"There are stories floating around on the Web that we've got 500-pound fish that are going to grow to the size of sharks and threaten children on the beach," said Joseph McGonigle, vice president of Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., a Waltham, Mass., company that has drawn worldwide protests for its efforts to create fast-growing salmon through genetic manipulation. "This is nice, for a change."

McGonigle acknowledged the salmon pose a theoretical risk, and said his company hopes to deal with it by growing only gene-altered salmon that are sterile -- and thus can't threaten wild Atlantic salmon populations, which are already endangered. The National Academy of Sciences commissioned the report, from a panel of academic experts, at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, one of the agencies on the front lines of regulating the technology.

The report was originally scheduled for release today, but leaked a day early after summaries were distributed on Capitol Hill.

John G. Vandenbergh, a professor of zoology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, noted that the committee, of which he was chairman, was asked only to identify risks of animal biotechnology, not benefits. The view was widespread among committee members that, in many cases, the risks are manageable and the benefits considerable, he said.

"I think the whole committee feels that all the flowers that are blooming in the biotechnology garden don't necessarily have to be picked," he said. "We have to be careful about which ones we do pick."

The panel said federal agencies such as FDA and the Department of Agriculture are stretching a patchwork of laws, written for other purposes, to try to stay on top of biotechnology, and the panel expressed concern that these efforts, while well-intentioned, remain fragmentary and inadequate.

"There is some validity to that," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "At least, the laws that we're operating under are not as explicit as they could be in giving us the authority to regulate in this area."

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