Science - December 5, 2009

Rikilt arms itself for transgenic animals

Transgenic food substances of animal origin could be found in foreign supermarkets in the foreseeable future, just like genetically modified plant products.

So says Gijs Kleter, risk expert at the Institute of Food Safety (Rikilt). He is the first author of the institute's evaluation report on gene technology in farm animals, released in November. The possibility of transgenic animal food products appearing in supermarkets outside Europe is looming up. As such, Kleter stresses the importance of following these developments, ensuring that legislation is properly set up, and keeping tabs on the effects on animal welfare and food safety.
Super salmon
'Ethical objections have so far played the chief role in halting gene technology research on animals in the Netherlands and the EU', says Kleter. 'However, such research continues in other countries such as the United States, New Zealand, Cuba and East Asian countries.' There are restrictions, though, concerning the use of transgenic animals in these countries. As such, the request to introduce the fast-growing 'super salmon' - which has been around for some ten years - in the American market is still hanging in the balance. Kleter: 'The public is worried that transgenic fishes could escape and introduce modified genes into wild salmon through propagation, or that wild salmon would be displaced eventually.
Social purpose
In the Netherlands, genetic modification of animals is only allowed if approved by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. The criteria for such approval are mostly ethical in nature: genetic modification must not jeopardize the health or welfare of the animal in any big way, it must serve a real social purpose, and there are no available alternatives. To raise production is therefore not a relevant argument to approve transgenic animals. However, this does not exclude the possibility that in the near future - perhaps within several years - products from transgenic animals would be found in markets outside Europe. There would then be fast-growing transgenic fish, transgenic pigs which produce low-phosphorus manure, and transgenic cows which give 'supermilk' with a better composition. Just like genetically modified plant products such as soya, transgenic animal products may also find their way into supermarkets outside Europe, Kleter says. 'We will then need techniques and knowledge to detect these in imported products before they can be admitted into the EU.' Therefore, besides evaluating current legislations, the Rikilt report also discusses methods to identify these products.
Frankenstein food
Rikilt places food safety at its core, says Kleter. In addition to good detection methods, he feels that risico analysis of transgenic food substances is very important. 'This can be done by looking at how much the composition of a transgenic product - fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, etc. - differs from that of the original product', he explains. 'These profiles will tell us whether it is necessary to do more testing before the product can be declared safe. For example, we may come across an entirely new protein in a transgenic product.' Despite the many vehement objections from the consumer against transgenic food, Kleter thinks that it is impossible to halt their stride. So we would have to get used to even more 'Frankenstein food' - as critics term them - on supermarket shelves in the near future. Market forces would then determine if these are here in the assortment to stay.