Are 'Frankenfoods' on the way?
The facts are that genetically modified fish and beef may be moving closer to your dinner table.
After years of pondering the complexities, the Food and Drug Administration has finally issued draft regulatory guidelines that should open a pathway to commercialization for potentially useful products that have thus far been research curiosities.
We know that many consumers are leery of "Frankenfoods," but genetically engineered crops and microorganisms are already widely used. Furthermore, the new guidelines should allow engineered animal foods to be introduced safely. Producers will have to show that the inserted genes do not harm the animal's health and that any food from a genetically engineered animal is safe to eat.
Genetically modified animals should be a boon both for consumers, who may ultimately gain healthier foods and access to scarce medications, and for agricultural producers, who may cut costs with disease-resistant or faster-growing animals.
The only genetically engineered animal currently sold in this country, other than lab animals, is an aquarium fish that glows in the dark. Now there are hopes that the new guidelines will speed the commercialization of salmon that have had genes inserted to make them grow faster, pigs whose manure is less damaging to the environment, cattle resistant to mad-cow disease and animals whose meat or milk is more nutritious.
Animals are also being engineered to produce pharmaceutical substances -- human insulin, disease-fighting antibodies, scarce clotting factors and cancer inhibitors -- that can be extracted for use in medicines.
There are legitimate concerns that the agency will wrap the whole approval process in great secrecy. The agency may well hold public advisory meetings for the first few novel products, but it should probably extend that practice indefinitely. With such a new technology, an open, transparent approach is the best way to instill public confidence.
Some critics worry that the F.D.A. won't be adept at assessing and mitigating the environmental risks of genetically engineered animals. Agency officials are confident that they have the requisite expertise, buttressed by the ability to consult with experts at other agencies. Congress will need to make sure that the already overburdened agency -- whose main focus has been drugs and medical devices -- has the budget and staffing to handle such a sensitive task.