Earlier this month the FDA sent out a press release inviting people to comment on their new regulations for genetically engineered animals.  Basically, genetically modified animals are coming to American tables whether we like it or not, and the FDA has decided that its approach to regulation will be to treat recombinant DNA constructs just as they would new drugs under review for approval. 

Genetically modified organisms are already all around us: in crops that grow faster, bigger, in more extreme temperatures, or in ways that resist pests and disease; in pharmaceuticals; in animal testing; and in the production of cheese, bread, beers, and wines.  But what the future holds, at least in the eyes of proponents of genetically modified animals, are animals that grow faster, emit less phosphate or methane in their manure, are resistant to diseases like mastitis or mad cow, or have omega-3 fatty acids at levels similar to fish. The first animal to go through the regulatory process will probably be an Atlantic salmon developed in a Massachusetts lab. According to the New York Times, the fish fattens up to market weight in 18 months instead of 30.  

“Genetically engineered animals hold great promise for improving human medicine, agriculture, the environment, and the production of new materials, and the FDA has long been involved in their scientific evaluation,” says the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy and planning, Randall Lutter.  

The agricultural biotechnology industry, according to the Times, has long approved the idea of guidelines and structure, because it feels they’ll help the industry.  “We feel this will enhance investor confidence in this technology,” Barbara Glenn of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, told the Times.  “A strong regulatory process translates ultimately into public confidence.”

According to the FDA’s Q&A forum for consumers, they do not plan on labeling food made from GE animals, unless that food is “different” from its non-engineered counterpart (obviously, the FDA’s definition of this will diverge from many other people’s).  Manufacturers and marketers can voluntarily label their foods GE or non-GE, but the FDA does not plan on getting involved.

Genetic engineering has too many advantages (economically speaking, mostly) not to barrel into the future, despite its detractors.  But it’s not cool that companies filling out applications for the FDA approval of “new drugs,” or new DNA constructs, are confidential, because that means we can’t know what’s being developed until it’s basically on the market.  That, paired with the lack of labeling regulations, mean that we’ll be flooded with GE foods that we can’t identify.  GE foods on the market are one thing, but being unable to identify them is quite another.

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008