Genetically Manipulated Food News

2 June 1997

Table of contents

L-Tryptophan continued
Codex Committee on Food Labeling
Organic Farmer about GE and Pesticides

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Reprinted with permission from the Biotech News column of the June 1997 issue of Alive: Canadian Journal of Health and Nutrition

The Tryptophan Example

by Richard Wolfson, PhD

In 1989, there was an epidemic in the USA of a mysterious disease. It was termed eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). This "disease" produced severe, often crippling muscle pain and resulted in over 37 deaths, as well as thousands of permanently disabled people.

Eventually EMS was traced to the consumption of certain genetically engineered (GE) batches of the nutritional supplement tryptophan, produced by the Japanese company Showa Denko K.K. The company had used a gene-altered version of the bacteria needed to make tryptophan in order to cut production costs--much like what many food and drug producers are doing today.

When the producers put this tryptophan on the market, they did not know a toxin was present. Extensive testing was not required--nor is it required today. Because it is impossible to predict all side-effects from inserting foreign genes into an organism, only very extensive long-term tests can ensure no unforeseen, damaging consequences.

Playing with Fire

When we cannot even predict the side-effects of genetic manipulation with a simple bacteria in the case of tryptophan, how in the world can we expect to prevent side-effects when we insert genes from pigs, fish, bacteria, viruses, and even humans into our foods? New allergens, toxins, and dangerous diseases are all likely. Genetic mistakes can be with us forever.

GE soybeans, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, canola, and ingredients used in hundreds of processed foods are already on the market in Canada, and thousands more about to flood the market. There is an urgent need for increased testing requirements.

Apples and Oranges

The principle of "substantial equivalence" is currently used by regulatory authorities to allow GE foods on the market without extensive testing. If a genetically engineered food appears identical to its non-GE counterpart in a few restricted characteristics (such as nutrition, flavour, and texture), the GE food is deemed substantially equivalent. In these cases, testing procedures consist almost exclusively of looking for a few specific anticipated allergens or toxic compounds. There is absolutely no attempt to even begin to assess the unanticipated or long-term side-effects of gene manipulation.

There are many people who can personally testify to the urgent need to tighten regulations on genetically engineered products. In the case of genetically engineered tryptophan, many patients are still in a chronic phase of eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome. The national EMS newsletter mails to approximately 800 survivors, which is about half the initial EMS victims identified. The total number of victims is estimated in the thousands. (For more information on EMS and tryptophan, see the EMS home page , or refer to the article: Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome and tryptophan production: a cautionary tale, Trends in Biotechnology, Sept., 1994, pp. 346-352.)

Note: Biotech industry representatives often attribute the toxic tryptophan to inadequate purification procedures, rather than the genetic engineering process. In this case, a more thorough purification process might have been able to catch the unexpected toxin. However, this only highlights the need for more extensive testing of all genetically engineered products because of the risks of such unpredicted effects.

It is also worth noting that all of the remaining genetically engineered batches of tryptophan and other evidence at the production plant linking the disaster to genetic engineering were conveniently destroyed before investigators could precisely determine what stage in the production process was responsible for the toxin. Still, more than two billion dollars of litigation was instituted against Showa Denko.

A Report on the Codex Committee on Food Labelling

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL) met in Ottawa from April 15-19, 1997 to discuss issues that affect the entire world food supply.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, often referred to simply as Codex, is a joint UN/WHO entity designated by the World Trade Organization as the officially recognized rule-making body for international trade issues related to food. Under GATT (the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), Codex decisions have the clout of international law.

Same Codex -- Different Issue

Codex has a number of different committees, including the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses--the focus of much attention lately with the proposal to limit supplement dosages.

The Committee on Food Labelling, however, rules on another area of concern to health-conscious consumers--whether or not food products containing genetically altered substances must be labelled as such. The committee, which meets in Ottawa yearly, also sets criteria for foods to be certified and labelled "organic." Other topics include labelling of potential allergens, and the range of health and nutritional claims allowed on labels.

Officially, the mandate of Codex is to "create a set of international standards to guide the world's growing food industry and to protect the health of consumers." However, in practice, Codex is strongly influenced by industry and biotech representatives, which often results in decisions that benefit profit and production, at the expense of health and nutrition.

Organic and Biotech Issues

At the "organic" sessions in April, there was concern expressed that the Codex organic guidelines should be stronger, more precise and more well-defined. Consequently, the guidelines did not proceed further up the approval process and will be reconsidered at the 1998 CCFL meeting.

Regarding genetically engineered foods, CCFL was considering a proposal (supported by Canada, USA, Mexico, France, and the UK) that would have allowed thousands of these GE foods on the world market, unlabelled and mixed in with other foods. When one considers that Canada is represented by Agriculture Canada, which received $36 million in grants from the biotech industry, it may not be surprising that Canada supported the biotech position of not requiring labelling.

Decision Postponed While Biotech Grows

Due to many European countries not supporting this proposal and demanding mandatory labelling of genetically engineered foods, the proposal was not accepted. The topic will be considered again next year.

This outcome benefits the biotech industry. The continued lack of international regulations allows genetically engineered foods to keep coming on the market, unlabelled and untested for their long-term effects on human health.

What Can We Do?

Europe has been much more hesitant in accepting biotech foods than North America. One of the reasons is that many European consumers have written to their major food chains and complained. Let's learn from their example-we must write our major grocery chains, ask whether they carry genetic engineering foods, state their concerns, and demand that these foods be labelled--or we won't buy! Make them join us in appealing to our government for safe, labeled foods

For more information on genetic engineering and what we can do to stop these products entering the market, contact: Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Foods, Natural Law Party, Tel: 613-565-8517, Email:

Richard Wolfson, PhD is Health Advisor to the Natural Law Party

Organic Farmer about GE and Pesticides

Dear Friends,

Here is fabulous letter that I received recently from an organic farmer responding to the prevailing view that we need pesticides, chemicals and genetic engineering and that anything else is a step backwards, etc:

Comments of Eric Kindberg (organic farmer):

It is amazing the concepts that people who do not farm acquire about life. Weeds are so easily controlled mechanically, and biologically. Why would anyone want to take the risk of contaminating the biological processes of the soil, wildlife, water and humans through applying subtances that were never before found in nature or used in concentrations exceeding those found in nature? Weeds, as an "environmental threat". So are water, soil and all plants. The earth is an evironmental threat ! Such a statement must be a joke. Erosion only occurs when fertility created by the natural biological systems is depleted. Fertile soils on applicable geography for annual crops and perennial/annual sod integrated into perennial crops, with correct tillage virtually never erode.

The use of herbicides and, I might add from experience, pesticides, indicates poor understanding of the soil, water and plant/animal relationships as well as poor biotic management techniques. All this could be elaborated on, but what is of paramount importance, in the above presentation, is that Dr. Roush only compares synthetic chemical applications for farming to other synthetic chemical applications for farming.

Back on the farm where the herbicides are applied. Dr. Roush's statements and documentation are only valid in a world that accepts the use of synthetic plant control subtances as mandatory, essential. Academic provincialism has and is decimating farmers knowledge, common sense and eons of proven methods of sound biological management of the farming and forestry ecology.

I challenge Dr. Roush and all academics to go to the soul of farming, seek out the traditional farmers in every culture. Locate the farm family or farmer that produces for the commercial market without pesticides, commercial organic farmers are excellent choices, and learn from, document, their techniques. Organic techniques and systems work for every crop in every climate of the world. The same techniques and systems will work for every farmer willing to correct the abyssamal state of the soil biological systems left by chemical intensive and full bore economic monocropping. The resultant economically remunerative and biologically regenerative systems make for an enjoyable, healthful and sustaining human lifestyle. What more does anyone want?

Best Regards, Eric Kindberg, organic farmer

Richard Wolfson, PhD, Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food

Natural Law Party, 500 Wilbrod Street, Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2, Tel. 613-565-8517 Fax. 613-565-6546, email: NLP Website:

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