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Playing With Our Food
Genetic Engineering and Irradiation
By Lisa Turner

It used to be that getting clean food wasn't so hard. A trip to the local health food store and a quick scan of food labels, and you could fill your 'fridge with whole, healthy foods. Now, even tofu is likely to be tainted with genetically modified organisms, and your favorite natural tabouli mix may contain irradiated herbs and spices. Is nothing sacred? Not in the brave new world of "biotech" foods.

Genetic Engineering: Weird Science

Flounder genes in your pasta sauce? Insect genes in your mashed potatoes? Welcome to the high-tech world of genetic engineering, the process of artificially shuffling genes from one organism to another. Proponents of genetic engineering say it's a sure way to boost food supply, reduce pesticide use and possibly breed super-foods with extraordinary nutritional profiles. The problem is, that no one really knows the long-term effects of such complex genetic manipulation-and the potential dangers to humans and the environment are substantial.
Don't think that genetic engineering is merely a step-up version of traditional crossbreeding techniques. It's a new weird science that allows the insertion of genes from any plant or animal into any other organism. One example: an "anti-freeze" gene that allows flounder to survive in very cold water is inserted into tomatoes to boost their tolerance to frost. Or insect-killing genes from bacteria may be inserted into corn or potatoes to up their defenses against pests.
Shuffling genes between species raises plenty of scary possibilities. The technology is new enough to be frighteningly imprecise, with generally uncertain outcomes. And because no long-term safety tests have been conducted, no one really knows the full scope of the potential health risks. According to an editorial in a 1996 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, "Questions of safety vex federal regulators and industry as well as the public. The transfer of genes from microbes, plants or animals into foods raises issues about the unintended consequences of such manipulations."
Some of these consequences include the production of new allergens in foods and unexpected mutations in an organism, which can create a new and higher level of toxins. One example: in 1993, 37 people died and more than 1500 people suffered partial paralysis from a disease called eosinophilia-myalgia, which was eventually linked to a tryptophan supplement made with genetically engineered bacteria.
Another worrisome possibility is that insects, birds and the wind can carry genetically altered seeds into neighboring fields and beyond, where they can cross-pollinate, threatening the future of wild crops, genetically natural crops and organic foods.
And once genetically modified organisms are introduced into the food supply, they can't be recalled. "Unlike pesticide use, genetic engineering introduces living organisms that will be replicated in other living organisms," says Susan Haeger, president/CEO of Citizens For Health, a non-profit consumer advocacy group based in Boulder, Colorado. "Once they're in the environment, there's no way to bring them back."

Irradiation: Zapping Our Food

What happens when you cross a potato with 10,000 rads of ionizing radiation - more than 2,500,000 times the dose of a chest X-ray? Better find out before you eat your next order of french fries. Irradiation, used to extend shelf life and kill microorganisms in food, can also lower nutritional value, create environmental hazards, promote the growth of toxins and produce compounds called unique radiolytic products, which have been associated with a variety of biological abnormalities.
Food irradiation was proposed by the Atomic Energy Commission in the early 1950's as a way of dealing with a formidable nuclear waste problem from the manufacture of nuclear weapons, according to Michael Colby, editor of the Food & Water Journal. In the mid-1980's, the FDA began to approve a huge range of foodstuffs for irradiation, including meat, poultry, produce, herbs and spices. Since then, permissible levels of radiation have been dramatically increased, and the amount now allowed is sunstantial.
Proponents say irradiation destroys harmful microorganisms and may reduce outbreaks of salmonella and trichinosis from meat. It is also said that irradiation increased shelf life of various foods and can reduce the use of toxic chemicals as post-harvest fumigants. Absurd, say irradiation opponents. "Irradiation is destroying our food supply," says Gary Gibbs, D.O., author of the Food That Would Last Forever. "It is nothing more than a toxic band-aide approach to the problems."
Adequate cooking, sanitary handling and preparation and hygienic processing methods are better ways to reduce illness from microorganisms in meat. Shelf life is an unfounded concern in the United States, and the cost of irradiation in less-developed countries would usually offset savings from extended shelf life. As for the argument that irradiation would reduce the need for post-harvest chemical fumigants, some say that irradiated foods are more prone to infection by certain fungi.
The FDA and irradiation proponents claim the process is safe, but compelling evidence to the contrary says otherwise. Meanwhile, considerable controversy exists regarding safety studies. Although 441 studies have been conducted on food irradiation, the FDA based their toxicity evaluation on only five animal studies, according to Gibbs. Of these five studies, two were found to be methodically flawed, one suggested that irradiated food could have adverse effects on older animals and two investigated foods irradiated at doses well below FDA-approved levels.
Few human trials exist, because of obvious ethical considerations, but some small studies have raised concerns, suggesting that food irradiation can cause chromosomal abnormalities.
Irradiation of food can lead to cardiac disease, cancer, kidney disease, fetal malformations, and a dramatic shortening of the life span, according to Gibbs. "A lot of studies have shown problems with the heart, specifically that irradiation causes bleeding in the heart," he says. "Also, when food is irradiated, it created benzene and formaldehyde, which are known mutagens and suspected carcinogens."
Irradiation also appears to cause significant nutrient loss in foods, especially of vitamins A, B, C, and E. Generally, the higher amount of radiation, the greater the nutrient loss. Add to that environmental concerns, including hazards in transporting and handling radioactive isotopes, danger of exposure to workers and possible security problem at irradiation facilities. Right now, there are about 50 irradiation facilities in the United States, says Colby, but a huge increase is expected if irradiation is embraced in the market place. The result: a substantial increase in potential environmental disasters.

Speak Out Against Manipulated Foods

Tired of your food supply being tainted? You can have a voice, "Consumers have to demand that the government require labeling so they can make a choice," Hager says. "The biotech industry has had so much influence, there wont be any changes unless people speak out."

Some ideas:
· Let law makers know you're concerned. The Citizens For Health website (www.citizens.org) allows you to send a message to your legislators. Just type in your zip code, personalize and customize the prewritten message, and email or print and mail in to legislators.
· Take the time and energy to educate yourself and others. Buy books and check out websites for the latest information on manipulated foods.
· Remember that your natural foods retailer is a partner in wanted natural healthy foods. Hager says, "Most retailers are trying their best to supply untainted food. Don't point fingers - instead, let them know you're concerned and ask how you can support them."