Food Safety Concerns

101 Toxic Food Ingredients

101 Toxic Food Ingredients

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The potential risks of biotechnology on human health may include toxic reactions, increased cancer risks, food allergies, food contamination, and antibiotic resistance (Table 4.1). There is also concern that GMOs in animal feed might present a health risk for consumers, or for the animal itself. Consumers are also concerned about the long-term health effects of genetically modified foods.

To address food safety concerns, the following safeguards have been adopted by some countries:

(i) Some countries have regulatory procedures, institutions, and infrastructure in place to ensure food safety (OECD 2000). These regulations cover all aspects of the food chain, from farm inputs (including animal feed, feed additives, pesticides, fertilizers, veterinary drugs) through production and processing (including agricultural products, processed food, novel foods, food additives), to transportation, storage, and distribution.

(ii) Formal science-based procedures for risk analysis of food have been adopted by some countries. These continue to evolve with new scientific information about food safety, emerging pathogens, new technology, and consumer demands for a high level of public health protection. Generally,

Table 4.1: Summary of Perceived and Genuine Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops

Nature of Risk

Type of Risk


Food Safety

1. Toxins and poison. In 1998, a scientist in the Rowett Institute found that GE potatoes spliced with DNA from the snowdrop plant (a viral promoter) are poisonous to mammals.

2. Increased cancer risks. Monsanto's bovine somatotrophin (growth hormone) injected into dairy cows to produce more milk has been reported to cause cancer in human breast, prostate, and colon.

3. Food allergies. In 1996, a Brazil nut gene spliced into soybean was reported to induce potentially fatal allergies in people sensitive to Brazil nuts.

4. Contamination. StarLink, a GE maize variety approved for animal feed but not for human consumption, was found in an ingredient used by some US beer makers and in taco shells in the US in 2000.

The UK Government's Advisory Committee for Novel Food and Process examined the data and concluded that the experiment was faulty and the conclusions were wrong.

This is not a GM food. In any event, Canada and the European Union have banned its use. A United Nations Food Standard body has not certified its safe use. The hormone is no longer widely used in US.

The safety assessment confirmed that the protein was an allergen and the development was abandoned. A standard laboratory test has been available to test possible aller-genicity in GE products.

The incident was caused by an accidental mix of StarLink with vast amounts of other maize during harvest, storage, and distribution. The contaminated food was recalled and destroyed. A number of quick and cheap tests are available to determine the presence of GM products in food.

Table 4.1: Summary of Perceived and Genuine Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops (cont'd.)


Environmental Risks

Type of Risk

5. Antibiotic Resistance. Use of an antibiotic marker gene in the development of GE crops may contribute to the growing public health danger of antibiotic resistance.

1. Increased pesticide residues. Farmers growing GE crops will use as many toxic insecticides and herbicides as conventional farmers, thus increasing pesticide residues in soils and on crops.

2. Genetic pollution. Wind, rain, birds, and bees have carried genetically altered pollen into adjoining fields, contaminating the DNA of organic, non-GE crops.

3. Damage to beneficial insects. Scientists from Cornell University found that pollen from Bt maize was poisonous to Monarch butterflies and may be to other beneficial insects as well.


There is little or no evidence about this risk yet. But this is an emotive topic, and developers have now replaced the antibiotic marker with a safer marker.

This risk is not yet proven statistically. There are reports that farmers growing GE crops resistant to pests and herbicides are able to reduce production cost significantly through the reduced use of pesticides. That was a major reason why farmers adopted GE crops widely in the PRC and the US.

This genetic pollution is not an environmental issue unless the transfer of pollens causes some kind of environmental damage. Pollen contamination has taken place for centuries with or without genetic engineering.

Monitoring systems have been devised in the PRC and the US to evaluate the long-term effect of GE crops on beneficial insects.

Table 4.1: Summary of Perceived and Genuine Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops (cont'd.)


Type of Risk


4. Creation of superweeds. GE crops (soybean and canola) resistant to herbicides may transfer their resistance to weeds, turning them into superweeds, which cannot be controlled by herbicides.

This fear has yet to be proven. Scientists are closely monitoring the use of GE crops resistant to herbicides.

5. Creation of superpests. GE crops (maize and cotton) resistant to pests may transfer their resistance to pests, turning them into superpests which cannot be controlled by pesticides.

6. Creation of new viruses and bacteria. Biotechnology could help terrorists to create killer viruses or bacteria, which could be used in biological weapons.

7. Genetic bioinvasion. By virtue of their superior genes, some GE plants and animals will inevitably run amok, overpowering wild species in the same way that introduced exotic species do.

As above, this fear has yet to be proven in practice. There is no known mechanism by which pest resistance from a plant may be transferred to an insect pest.

This could happen, even without biotechnology. Terrorists historically have managed to acquire and subvert beneficial technologies to antisocial purposes.

There is as yet no scientific evidence that such plants and animals can be created through biotechnology.

Table 4.1: Summary of Perceived and Genuine Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops (cont'd.)

Risks Type of Risk


Socioeconomic Risks 1. Terminator technology

The Monsanto Company

will render seeds

has withdrawn the

infertile and force

terminator gene from its

hundreds of millions of

GE crops following

farmers to purchase

many complaints from

more expensive GE


seeds and chemical

inputs from a handful of

global biotechnology

and seed companies.

2. High concentration of

The public sector in Asia

biotechnology research

should accord high

and development in

priority to biotechnology

developed countries will

development that

widen the income

address the problems of

disparity between

small farmers.

developed and develop-

ing countries, and

between large and

small farmers.

Ethical Concerns 1. Biotechnology reduces

Although most of these

all life to bits of infor-

ethical concerns relate

mation (genetic code)

to non-agricultural

that can be rearranged

biotechnology, they

at whim by scientists.

point to the need for

The creation of the first

the private sector to

genetically modified

incorporate work ethics

monkey in 2000 brings

in biotechnology

the possibility of genetic

research and

manipulation closer to


humans. There is fear

that the technique will

be used to create

"designer babies."

2. There seems to be little

ethical concern by the

private companies over

the use of GE animals

to produce therapeutic


Bt = bacillus thuringiensis, DNA = deoxyribonucleic acid, GE = genetically engineered, GM = genetically modified, PRC = People's Republic of China, US = United States.

Bt = bacillus thuringiensis, DNA = deoxyribonucleic acid, GE = genetically engineered, GM = genetically modified, PRC = People's Republic of China, US = United States.

Source: Skerritt (2000) and Wolfenbargen and Phifer (2000).

the procedures conform to international standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO.

(iii) Some countries have adopted a variety of approaches to regulate genetically modified foods, either by applying existing food safety measures or enacting new legislation.

(iv) In response to consumer demands, a growing number of countries are introducing labeling. Opinions differ on whether labeling should be mandatory or voluntary, as well as on acceptable tolerance levels and on the type of information to be used. Two labeling issues currently being addressed are segregation and traceability. Segregation relates to the ability to attest to the separation of genetically modified and non-genetically modified crops (as in the case of soybean in processed foods). Traceability means being able to attest to the origins of food products. Traceability is of particular importance in the current controversy related to mad cow disease. Low cost, quick tests are now available to determine the presence of genetically modified products in food.

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