Consumers generally support tinkering with plant genes so crops will produce inexpensive medicines, but they are less comfortable with the idea of modifying animals for the same purpose, a new survey says.
EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT of 1,000 Americans interviewed for the poll by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology said designing biotech crops to make affordable drugs is a good idea, but just 49 percent of them believe genetically engineering animals for drugs is a good idea.
“As you go up the evolutionary ladder, people are less comfortable with genetic modification of any animals,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director for the Pew Initiative, a research group.
So far, the government has allowed foods onto the market that come from crops genetically designed to resist pests or tolerate chemicals. But companies are beginning to experiment with animals. Some are trying to mix genes from different species to make medicine or clone livestock in the hope that their organs could be transplanted into sick patients.
Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America, said when it comes to animals, “there are moral, ethical, social issues involved.”
The National Academy of Sciences said in a report last year that the government should make a strict approval system for transgenic animals — those made from genes of two or more species — to protect the food supply. It said, though, that cloned animals are likely safe to eat.
The Food and Drug Administration has decided to treat transgenics as if they were a drug, requiring companies to prove through rigorous testing that the animals aren’t harmful if used as food.
With plants, though, FDA asks companies to volunteer data showing the new food crop is basically the same as conventional. If that’s the case, a company gets a letter saying FDA reviewed the information and has no questions — a green light for putting the food on the market.
The survey, released Thursday, said 89 percent of consumers believe that companies should be required to submit safety information to the FDA for review, and the FDA shouldn’t allow it on the market until it’s proven safe.
The biotechnology industry and consumer groups have been calling for a mandatory process to replace the letters of certification to increase consumer trust in biotech foods.
But Jim Maryanski, the FDA biotechnology coordinator for foods, said the current process is working fine, noting that all companies come to the agency seeking the letter for their products — an assurance for food companies.
It isn’t the first time that FDA has come under scrutiny by the Pew Initiative. In January, the group questioned the adequacy of FDA regulations for reviewing the risks of transgenic fish.
The agency is assessing an application by Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., a biotech company in Waltham, Mass., to market genetically modified Atlantic salmon. The company is preparing tests to see if the fish — designed to produce less waste but grow larger and faster than their wild counterparts — would cause allergic reactions in people. That’s a final stage in the approval process.
The survey was conducted by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies. Pew said it commissioned the survey to check on consumer opinion of genetic engineering.
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