Who Will Tell Us the Tomato Has Pig Genes?

This afternoon a meeting of the official committee on innovative food is scheduled to be held at the Health Bureau on Tel Aviv's Harba'a Street, while across the way in the Cinematheque plaza, a protesting alternative committee on innovative food will also convene.

Orna Coussin
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Orna Coussin

This afternoon a meeting of the official committee on innovative food is scheduled to be held at the Health Bureau on Tel Aviv's Harba'a Street, while across the way in the Cinematheque plaza, a protesting alternative committee on innovative food will also convene.

The official committee has representatives from the Health, Agriculture and Trade and Industry Ministries, the Manufacturers' Association, the Israel Consumers' Association, and the environmental organization Green Course.

The demonstrating alternative event brings together environmental activists including Green Action, Friends of the Earth, and the revolutionary group, Food Not Bombs.

The activists have invested great efforts in the past year to influence the course of the official committee - formulating explanatory materials, initiating parliamentary questions, demonstrating and pleading. To a large extent the event being held today is the climax of their activities.

The issue on the agenda is ostensibly technical. The government committee has to decide today - six years after it was set up - whether to oblige producers, marketers and exporters of food products to label every product containing a genetically engineered ingredient.

The question is, for example, whether consumers of Kellog's Cornflakes will be able to know if they are buying a product based on engineered corn or ordinary corn, or whether this information will be kept from them. The environmental activists fear the committee will accept the position of the Trade and Industry Ministry which is against the labeling.

In a press release about a month ago, signed by Minister Ehud Olmert, the ministry proposed a government listing of all engineered products, but not that packages be labeled to inform consumers. Olmert's argument is that there is no proof that genetic engineering harms humans and therefore consumers do not need to know whether or not a product is engineered.

In other words, this information is of no significance to us, but don't worry, the state will keep track of everything and make a list of every engineered product. Should it turn out in the future that there is a risk, the state will of course let us know.

Secret process

Environmental activists and food experts say the position of the Ministry of Trade and Industry is directed at serving the interests of trade relations between Israel and the United States. The Americans want to ensure the easy distribution of their goods around the world and to remove any possible obstacle to them. The labeling of genetically engineered food products is an obstacle as far as they are concerned.

In the United States huge companies are involved in genetic engineering. The American concern Monsanto, for example, has a very bad reputation among environmental organization as a predatory concern that does everything possible to advance its economic interests.

The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is known for its weak stance vis-a-vis Monsanto and other food conglomerates. In the Ministry of Trade and Industry's position there is regard for American interests and it turns its back on Europe's position, the opposite of what has been the prevailing practice until now in matters of food.

Europe is the leading opponent of genetically engineered food. In Europe there is strict compulsory labeling, and between the Europeans and Americans a real economic war is raging on this issue. In general, the rules for food supervision in Europe are stricter, more professional, and more precise than those in the United States - and they are less vulnerable to pressures from big business interests.

Environmental activists say Olmert's promise that the state will maintain a list of engineered products is in fact deceptive. Listing engineered varieties is already mandatory in Israel and is relevant only to growers and marketers of raw materials - corn, soybeans, potatoes and tomatoes. Producers and marketers of processed and packaged food products usually have no access to the genetic engineering process of the raw material.

The genetic engineering of food is defined as the insertion of DNA (genes) in the cells of plants, animals or micro-organisms in any way that is not natural fertilization or cross-fertilization by insects. This is something that is done of course at a very early stage of growing the raw material. Moreover, the commercial cultivation of engineered plants is done mostly in the United States, Canada and South America, and not in Israel.

The original position of the Health Ministry was that the public has the right to know and therefore it was essential to label packaging, even if there is no proof that the process of genetic engineering is harmful or dangerous. Under this approach, there is no necessary connection between the potential risk and the obligation to label - the assumption is that consumers are adults in a democratic society and have the right to receive information to make an informed choice.

It is obligatory to indicate on packaging everything that a product contains - calories, proteins, carbohydrates, spices, caffeine, chemicals, food colorings and other ingredients. On the same principle, products in Israel are labeled if they have been pasteurized or irradiated at the nuclear facility at Nahal Sorek.

The aim of labeling is only to provide information to the consumer. Many consumers might prefer to buy paprika that has undergone irradiation because it ensures that that all bacteria and molds have been eradicated and the product is stable and safe for consumption. But there are also consumers who prefer to buy non-pasteurized products from small dairies for reasons of flavor, even though non-pasteurized milk is hazardous to health and banned from commercial marketing.

Fear of the unknown

The debate about genetically engineered food usually focuses on the question of the danger it poses to the environment and to consumers. The fear in the environmental field is of the migration of genes between different biological species, without human beings and animals being able to identify the plants and organisms. In other words, this is a fear of the unknown.

The health risk has to date been viewed in three areas - resistance to antibiotics, allergies and toxicity. In the genetic engineering process use is sometimes made of antibiotic substances to mark the implanted genes, which could cause resistance to antibiotics among consumers.

People who have food allergies are liable to suffer from genetically engineered foods for other reasons. For example, in an experiment carried out in the mid-1990s, Brazil-nut DNA was inserted in soybeans to implant amino acids to improve the protein. But the allergenic characteristics of the nut were also transmitted to the soybeans, and thus people who are allergic to the nuts are liable to eat the soy without knowing that it has a component that endangers them.

This experiment was terminated and the soy was not commercially developed. Cases like this ostensibly point to the health risk but also to the possibility that it is possible to supervise the experiments and prevent the commercial distribution of dangerous crops. Thus, this is an issue of freedom of information more than a health issue.

Piggish tomato

A balanced and interesting approach is that of British Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), a non-commercial organization, of which food technologists in Israel are also members. A position paper on the organization's Internet Site (www.ifst.org) praises the possible advantages of the new technology: "Genetic modification (GM) has the potential to offer very significant improvements in the quantity, quality and acceptability of the world's food supply."

However, the IFST immediately qualifies its support by noting that while the technique is "revolutionary in terms of the potential benefits that it may bring but it has also caused concern regarding issues of safety, ethics, consumer choice and environmental impact."

They stress that genetic engineering is essentially a technique that imitates and accelerates natural and agricultural actions - cross-breeding of varieties on a farm and the pollination of plants in nature by the wind and insects that over the years brings about changes in the genetic makeup of plants and the development of new varieties.

What does change here is the fast pace of the change and the possibility of crossing the barriers between biological species. Today, for example, it is possible to implant pig DNA into the DNA of a tomato. This kind of manipulation poses an ethical and philosophical problem, but primarily, say the people of the British institute, it obliges producers to inform the consumers.

Muslims, Jews and strict vegetarians will perhaps not want to eat a tomato with piggy characteristics. The new technology should not be rejected, but it is essential to reveal it to the public eye and to submit to constant public and professional criticism.

Today, across the way from the meeting of the committee on innovative foods the environmental activists will wave placards saying: "We are not guinea pigs for genetically engineered foods." They will parade with huge puppets of engineered vegetables - in the style of the large Greenpeace demonstrations in Europe.

Avi Levi of Green Action says that if the committee today does not make compulsory the labeling of the engineered products, the members of the organization will continue the struggle against the decision and will petition the High Court of Justice.

The activists fear that their position will not be adopted by the committee. The representative from the Israel Consumers' Association, who is supposed to take part in the meeting, is on reserve duty and he has no replacement.

Moreover, the position originally taken by the Health Ministry, which gave priority to the consumer's right to know in a manner similar to the principles that prevail in Europe, has changed somewhat recently. Now it is closer in spirit the position of the Trade and Industry Ministry, which prefers business interests over freedom of information.

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