FDA Ignored Own Scientists’ Warnings About GM Food Safety

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Internal US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) documents reveal that the agency’s own scientists expressed doubts about its policy toward labeling genetically modified foods, while raising questions about the foods’ safety.

The FDA’s policy toward genetically modified foods has been that they are “substantially equivalent” to conventional foods and therefore don’t require special labels—unlike most other industrialized nations that require labeling.

“Profound difference” between GM and conventional foods

FDA’s policy, established in 1992, states, “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new (genetic engineering) methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new technologies present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”
But FDA internal documents released in the late 1990s during a lawsuit against the agency show that the FDA’s own scientists had serious doubts about GM foods when the policy was being established.

In a February 1992 memo, Louis J. Pribyl, Ph.D., a scientist in the FDA’s Microbiology Group, critiqued a draft of the policy by writing, “There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering which is just glanced over in this document.” Dr. Pribyl added that “several aspects of gene insertion may be more hazardous than traditional plant crossbreeding.”

Linda Kahl, Ph.D., an FDA compliance officer, objected that the agency was, “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole [by] trying to force an ultimate conclusion that there is no difference between foods modified by genetic engineering and foods modified by traditional breeding practices.” She continued, “The processes of genetic engineering and traditional breeding are different, and according to the technical experts in the agency, they lead to different risks.”

E.J. Matthews, Ph.D., of the FDA’s Toxicology group warned in an October 1991 memo, “genetically modified plants could also contain unexpected high concentrations of plant toxicants.”

In a November 1991 memo to James Maryanski, Ph.D., the agency’s Biotechnology Coordinator, FDA’s Division of Food Chemistry and Technology cautioned, “it would be necessary to demonstrate that edible seed and oils produced from genetically engineered plants do not contain unintended potentially harmful substances at levels that would cause concern.”

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Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by Karen Eliot

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