Biotechnology and the food industry

by Teresa Acklin
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   The climate for regulating the introduction of products arising from new technology in Europe is changing because consumers have lost confidence in assurances from politicians and no longer trust scientists who are regarded as arrogant, distant and uncaring, according to Derek Burke, chairman of the U.K.'s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (A.C.N.F.P.).

   In the 19th Campden Day Lecture at the Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Associations in early June, Dr. Burke said two pressures were changing the way scientists would have to work in introducing new products. These are a growing ambivalence to new technology and the widespread availability of information to increasing numbers of educated people.

   People want to be able to make their own choices, said Dr. Burke, because they believe scientists have become too influenced by commercial or political pressures. The public is largely unaware of the development of careful scientific methods of assessing risk, he said, and scientists have great difficulty in explaining the meanings of different degrees of risk.

   The public also assesses risks differently according to the context, Dr. Burke said. People are prepared to accept quite high risks when seriously ill, but very little with food. The first situation restores natural functions to an organism already threatened, while food is the “staff of life” — a basic good not be threatened, he stated.

   One explanation for the conflicting views, said Prof. Burke, is that scientists and the public work from different value systems. Scientists and technologists see novel applications of new discoveries as logical and reasonable and all opposition as unreasonable.

   But the public's reactions are of outrage that scientists should dare to do such things, dread of some unknown catastrophe and stigma in which they link such processes as irradiation to the atomic bomb and concern about nuclear power stations.

   Tracing the history of successes and failures so far in the launching of novel foods and processes, Dr. Burke said the launch of tomato paste made from the rot resistant tomatoes by Zeneca was successful because the public was reassured by the fact that the DNA was destroyed in the processing. Zeneca also took a great deal of care to explain the advantages of the new product and worked closely with the supermarkets who, crucially, offered customers the choice between the new product and the conventional one. The product sold well and the marketing strategy was a success.

   In approving the tomato products, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes had learned from earlier mistakes made with food irradiation and the genetically modified baker's yeast developed by Gist-Brocades. Although the genetic change in the yeast was very small and could have been brought about naturally, continued Prof. Burke, some press reactions were alarmist and as a result the product has never been used.

   Experience from these two examples also enabled the Committee to avoid any major consumer problems over the release of sheep meat from sheep who had been modified with a human gene to produce the Factor IX blood clotting agent in their milk, he said. Despite the fact that large numbers of animals used in the breeding process did not contain any human genes at all, widespread consultation with consumer and religious groups revealed a high level of opposition.

   As a result, said Dr. Burke, such restrictions were put on food use that even the animals with no foreign genes would ever enter the food chain.

   “We have learned in the A.C.N.F.P. that scientific and consumer issues should be settled simultaneously, side by side, not consecutively as we used to do,” Dr. Burke said. He added that the former approach of first sorting out the science and then looking at consumer issues simply does not work, he said.

   Moving on to the more recent developments with genetically modified, “Roundup Ready” soybeans and maize, he said the A.C.N.F.P. had no concerns about the safety of herbicide resistant soybeans, although it did recommend that retailers should provide information on a voluntary basis as they had with the genetically modified tomatoes. However, providing information in the case of soybeans has not been possible because soybeans are a commodity and the genetically modified material cannot be segregated

   The Committee took a different view with Ciba-Geigy's corn-borer resistant maize, known as Bt maize, because of concerns over the use of an antibiotic gene which could cause antibiotic resistance. The Committee's scientific objections and those of other member states were resolved by the European Commission in Brussels, which decided that the possibility or the product increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance was unlikely. Despite this decision, several European countries, including Austria, Luxembourg and France still refuse to accept the Brussels ruling.

   These reactions and to the presence of human genes in sheep were a warning, said Dr. Burke.

   “In stressing the underlying simplicity and the order of the complex world which modern molecular biology reveals, and in stressing the power and effectiveness of modern technology, we must also stress its limits” he said. “Scientists must be less assertive, less arrogant than is currently sometimes the case. Scientists are too often driven by their love of new technology, are unaware of the dehumanizing effect of their innate reductionism and so are regarded as arrogant, distant and uncaring.”

   Dr. Burke suggested that in the future, four main criteria should be applied to the development of new products. These are technical possibility; an advantage to the consumer as well as the producer; a rigorous, open and universal regulatory process; and the offer of choice to the consumer, at least for some time period.

   Given these parameters, Dr. Burke said he thought that biotechnology would dominate advances in the food industry. New developments are likely to include new and improved enzymes for food processing and the modification of existing foods, rapid genetic typing methods to speed conventional plant breeding, further genetic manipulation along the lines of herbicide and disease resistance, advances in hybridization and further improvements in shelf life.

   Other developments further ahead would involve modification of fats and starches for different end uses; improved flavor and texture in fruit and vegetables; and growing characteristics such as salt tolerance, drought resistance and response to day length.

   Derek Burke, a distinguished scientist, held a number of senior academic appointments in the United Kingdom and North America before becoming vice-president and scientific director of Allelix Inc., Toronto. In 1987, he was appointed vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia, a post he held until his retirement from academic life in 1995.

   He has been a member of the Government's Technology Foresight Steering Group and remains a director of the Cancer Research Campaign and a member of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. As chairman of the A.C.N.F.P. since 1988, he is responsible for advising the government on issues relating to the manufacture of novel foods or foods produced by novel processes.