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SPECIAL HEALTH RISKS OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED (GE) FOOD FOR INFANTS AND CHILDREN

 

GENERAL HEALTH RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH GE FOOD

 

The process of genetic engineering is imprecise and random. Inserted genes may disrupt natural genes, be unstable in their new environment, or function differently than expected. As a result, genetic engineering can have unexpected and unintended effects, with potentially harmful consequences. In view of these concerns, and considering food biotechnology is poorly tested and regulated in Canada, the following food safety concerns arise:

 

Allergenicity: New proteins produced by the effect of the foreign gene inserted into a genetically modified organism may cause allergies.

 

Toxicity: The new proteins may also lead to the production of toxins.

 

Nutritional Changes: The GE process could lead to nutritional changes.

 

Antibiotic Resistance: Current transgenic plants may contain antibiotic resistant marker genes (a technique often used to show that the gene transfer has been successfully completed). It's feared this could contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, causing authorities such as the British Medical Association, the Royal Society of Canada and the Ontario Public Health Association to call for a ban on  the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GE food. 

 

For further information on the general health risks associated with GE food, see the following Greenpeace backgrounders available at www.greenpeace.ca :

 

Resources Critical of Food and Agricultural Biotechnology (October 2002)

GE Food: Safe to Eat?(May 2002)

 

WHAT ARE THE SPECIAL HEALTH RISKS OF

GE FOODS FOR CHILDREN AND INFANTS?

 

Below are comments from a number of health and scientific authorities who have articulated the special health risks of GE foods for children and infants. Genetically engineered infant formula is of particular concern considering that infants who are not breast-fed are exclusively fed infant formula typically for the first 6 months of their lives. Health risks associated with GE food for infants and children are exacerbated due to inadequate safety testing by the Canadian government and its refusal to legislate the mandatory labelling of GE foods so that parents can avoid feeding them to their children. Food manufacturers and retailers who refuse to remove GE ingredients from their products and their stores — or label them in the interim — are also putting the wellbeing of babies and children at risk.

 

From: Joint FAO/WHO Food Standard Programme, Codex Alimentarius Commission.  2002. Draft Guideline for the conduct of food safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants.  Report of the Third Session of the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Food Derived from Biotechnology.  ALINORM 03/34.

 

“Attention should be paid to the particular physiological characteristics and metabolic requirements of specific population subgroups such as infants, children, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly and those with chronic diseases or compromised immune systems.”

 

From: Howard, Vyvyan, an expert in infant toxico-pathology at Liverpool University Hospital, UK. (Ref: The Guardian: 19/3/98):

 

"Swapping genes between organisms can produce unknown toxic effects and allergies that are most likely to affect children."

 

From: Royal Society of Canada.  2001.  Elements of Precaution:  Recommendations for the regulation of food biotechnology in Canada.  Ottawa:  Royal Society of Canada. February. P. 59. Available at: www.rsc.ca/foodbiotechnology/indexEN.html

 

“Early introduction of these (peanut, tree nuts, seafood and seeds) and other food proteins to the infant’s relatively immature immune system may encourage development of an allergy.  Infants and young children therefore appear to be more susceptible to developing food allergies, resulting in a higher incidence.”

 

“The potentially widespread use of GM food products as food additives and staple foods, including use in baby foods, may lead to earlier introduction of these novel proteins to susceptible infants either directly or via the presence of the maternally ingested proteins in breast milk.”

 

“These issues highlight the susceptibility of children to allergenic dietary proteins, the potential risks to children of allergenic proteins even if consumed mostly by adults, and the risk of inducing food allergy in the population by widespread exposure to allergenic GM proteins.”

 

From: Royal Society (UK).  2002. Genetically modified plants for food use and human health – an update. Policy document 4/02. February 2002. Available at: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk

 

Excerpt from the Greenpeace briefing document GE Food: Safe to Eat?

 

“The Royal Society recently considered the possible effects of GE foods on the health of babies and infants. The report recognised that food allergies are far more common in children than adults, stating that: ‘food allergies occur in 1-2 % of adults and 6-8 % of children.’ Therefore, children would be most vulnerable to any allergens that may have gone undetected in GE food. In the report, infants are classified as a ‘high risk group’ [emphasis ours] for post marketing surveillance of deleterious effects of GE foods in humans. The Royal Society also recognised that babies and infants are vulnerable to harmful effects from nutritional changes in their diet. Any changes in the composition of foods made from GE crops could be important when given to infants over a long period of time, especially if it is a food such as infant formula which infants may live off as a complete food. The report recommended that any GE ingredients in foods such as infant formulas ‘should be investigated most rigorously.’”

 

From: Royal Society (UK) Working Group on Genetically Modified Food.

 

Excerpt from the INFACT Canada/IBFAN North America Newsletter Winter 2002, p. 10 (with material from The Daily Telegraph, Fears for babies from GM milk, Robert Uhlig, 5/2/02 and The Independent, Scientists to Warn of GM Food Dangers for Babies. Marie Woolf, 2/4/02.

 

“Warnings from the UK Royal Society Working Group on Genetically Modified Food express fears about the safety of genetically modified infant formulas. ‘Bottle-fed babies could be undernourished if given genetically modified infant formula milk because of inadequate regulations and testing regimes for GM foods,’ leading scientists said….Dr. Eric Brunner, an epidemiologist at University College, London, and one of the report’s authors said babies dependent solely on formula milk were particularly vulnerable to any nutritional changes. He said there was a ‘potential concern that small changes to the nutritional content might have effects on infant bowel function.’”

 

From: Schubert, David, a cell biologist and professor at the Salk Institute, USA.

 

“…I believe that insufficient attention has been paid to three important issues: first, introduction of the same gene into two different types of cells can produce two very distinct protein molecules; second, the introduction of any gene, whether from a different or the same species, usually significantly changes overall gene expression and therefore the phenotype of the recipient cell; and third, enzymatic pathways introduced to synthesize small molecules, such as vitamins, could interact with endogenous pathways to produce novel molecules. The potential consequence of all of these perturbations could be the biosynthesis of molecules that are toxic, allergenic, or carcinogenic. And there is no a priori way of predicting the outcome….[I] argue that GM food is not a safe option, given our current lack of understanding of the consequences of recombinant technology.” (Ref: Schubert, David. October. Commentary: A different perspective on GM Food.  Nature Biotechnology October 2002, 20: 969.)

 

“Since children are the most likely to be adversely effected by toxins and other dietary

problems, if the GM food is given to them without proper testing, they will be the experimental animals.  If there are problems, we will probably never know because the cause will not be traceable and many diseases take a very long time to develop.” (Ref: Personal communication from D. Schubert to H. Penfound, Greenpeace Canada, October 25, 2002).

 

 From: United States Environmental Protection Agency.  2000. Mammalian toxicity assessment guidelines for protein plant pesticides.  US EPA FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel Report 2000-03B September 28.

 

“With respect to immunogenicity/allergenicity, a mature immune system and an intact gastrointestinal tract have been regarded to be prominent factors in the hosts’s ability to respond to novel proteins.  An immature gut or permeable mucosal epithelium is more likely to allow a higher degree of macromolecular transport and access to the immune system than the intact barrier of a normal mature gut…. The immune system must also be of sufficient maturity … Both systems appear to be functioning optimally by age 3-5.

 

From: Aggett, P.J., C. Agostini, O. Goulet, O. Hernell, B. Koletzko, H.L. Lafeber, K.F. Michaelsen, J. Rigo, and L.T. Weaver.  2001.  The nutritional and safety assessment of breast milk substitutes and other dietary products for infants:  A commentary by the ESPGHAN committee on nutrition.  Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition 32:  256-258.

 

“Appropriate clinical studies of nutritional and safety assessment should be performed particularly for components and combinations of components that have not been included previously in infant formulas and other dietary products for infants.  Technological as well as compositional modifications to infant formulas should be assess nutritionally as, for example, the Committee on Nutrition has recommended recently in the case of breast milk substitutes based on hydrolyzed protein sources. …

 

Infant formulas or other dietary products that are modified for reasons other than to provide a novel functional or clinical benefit, or that are based on products already on the market should, at least, be subjected to studies of acceptability and of nutritional equivalence to the existing products.”

 

WHAT HAS THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT DONE ABOUT THE SPECIAL HEALTH RISKS OF GE FOODS FOR CHILDREN AND INFANTS?

 

The Canadian government has been harshly criticized for its inadequate food biotechnology regulatory framework by numerous authorities in Canada including The Royal Society of Canada in its report Elements of Precaution:  Recommendations for the regulation of food biotechnology in Canada (February 2001); the Ontario Public Health Association in its report Protecting our Food Supply: Public Health Implications of Food Biotechnology (November 2001); the Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sheela V. Basrur (memo dated March 26, 2001 introducing her report dated April 2001 entitled Toronto Public Health Technical Report for Consultation: Genetically Engineered Foods); and the Québec Institut national de santé publique du Québec (National Public Health Institute of Quebec) in its report Aliments Géniquement Modifiés et Santé Publique (October 2001), to name a few.

 

INFACT Canada, a mother and infant consumer rights group, “…has learned from representatives at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that when there is no substantive difference between a conventional food and a genetically modified food, safety tests are not required. In the case of soy based infant formulas, safety tests are not mandatory as these are ‘assumed’ to be safe based on the subjective and yet to be defined criteria of ‘substantial equivalence.’’ (INFACT Canada/IBFAN North America newsletter, Spring 2002: p. 6.)

 

 

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