Author sounds alarm over safety of genetically engineered foods
Steven M. Druker posed a thought experiment to his audience gathered at the La Mesa Community Center on the evening of September 2. Druker’s announced subject, genetic engineering of foods, attracted attendees but Druker began his talk with a step back.
“Let’s give free rein to our imaginations and suppose there is a process of unnatural means. What would we think about it if we discovered the following facts about it?” he asked.
Druker expanded with a series of questions in three areas. He asked, what if the first ingestible product so produced kills, harms, and leaves some people invalids for life? He next queried, what if the first whole food made as such a novel product was found to produce stomach lesions in animals? He followed by asking, what if the first truly rigorous testing of food products made by such a process demonstrated harm to lab animals’ vital organs, including kidneys and livers, but was dismissed and ignored by safety regulators charged with protecting the public?
Druker summed up this introduction.
“Most people would not consider a ban on such products extreme,” he said.
He noted that the process he was speaking about goes by the labels genetic re-engineering, recombinant DNA, genetic modification or, mostly commonly today, genetic engineering. And he stated that such products are already being sold as foods, being treated as generally safe for consumption, even as significant evidence indicates health risks can occur from ingesting them.
Druker was speaking at a meeting co-sponsored by the watchdog group Citizens Oversight and the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club. His appearance, open to the public, was part of a tour rolling out his new book, “Altered Genes, Twisted Truth,” which was published this spring. The title of his talk was “Why Genetically Engineered Foods Are Unacceptably Risky and Unequivocally Illegal -- and Why Most People Are Utterly Unaware of It.” Druker is also a public interest attorney who specializes in investigating the safety of genetically modified crops introduced into the food supply.
The details behind Druker’s initial thought questions? In 1989, a major epidemic of a never-before-seen disease in humans erupted. The heretofore unknown, at-times fatal and otherwise crippling illness was called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS), which manifested as an allergic inflammatory condition causing severe pain and weakness in muscles and joints. Subsequent research uncovered that the first ingestible genetically engineered product, a line of the nutritional supplement L-tryptophan, had been contaminated by one Japanese manufacturer producing the product using genetically modified bacteria to speed the process. (Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor to the naturally occurring brain chemical serotonin, and is sometimes recommended as a sleep aid or relaxant, instead of Prozac or other prescribed sedatives.) Rather than targeting that lone miscreant manufacturer for likely GE toxic contaminants inserted into their product, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled all tryptophan supplements on the market at the time.
Druker cited the troubling fact that other supplements available today are manufactured using similar genetically engineered organisms. Another distressing point he offered is that had the disease not been both widespread and novel, the somewhat buried use of GE processes would not have become understood as a possible cause. What about ill effects of GE supplement manufacturing that could present as commonly occurring conditions?
The next case Druker described was introduction of the Flavor Savr Tomato in 1994, the first whole food that was a GE product. Animal feeding studies suggested a greater occurrence of stomach lesions from a diet of these tomatoes than from naturally produced tomatoes, but the potential risk to humans is unknown. Druker said this remains an unresolved safety issue, particularly for elderly persons and aspirin takers, who are already vulnerable to stomach bleeding.
And in 1991 a biotechnology task force reported to the FDA, from the best data available, a set of memos listing concerns and detailing probable health risks in GE foods that are not inherent in conventionally bred and raised crops. After evaluating the conclusions of these technical experts, the FDA continued its official policy stating that the agency was “unaware” of any information about differences between naturally bred variations in grains and their GE counterparts.
Druker remarked on the political and governmental ramifications swirling around public awareness of possible dangers from biotech discoveries affecting food supplies. His assessment was that the FDA and “the scientific establishment” have assumed a “seamless continuum” exists between natural selective breeding and the “radical,” “forced” methods of modifying genes on a large scale. He noted that natural alternatives, which do exist, are usually harder and costlier to use than genetic engineering. And he further observed that the FDA is in violation of its own required testing standards under national food safety law, by blanket approval of GE foods without individual tests for each new arrival on the market. Druker claimed the government broke faith with the public by allowing GMOs in food manufacture, shaking his head, “They also broke faith with sound science.”
“We don’t need these in our food. We do need our foods to be free of them,” he said.
He suggested that those alarmed about potential harms from GE foods should stick to organic food alternatives or products produced from sustainable agricultural practices.
Citizens Oversight is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization fostering Citizens’ Oversight Projects to restore greater accountability in governmental bodies by training citizens in civic engagement to oversee official meetings and governing boards. More information on the group can be found at www.citizensoversight.org. The La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club has been in existence for 31 years and holds regular meetings on the first Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. The group’s activities and schedule can be followed at www.lamesafoothillsdemocraticclub.com.