Pigging out on genetically modified pork

by jeeg 27. January 2011 01:33

Genetically engineered pork may one day become a part of your local grocer's food list. But who's to decide whether or not this product should be on the shelves?

It's a question before officials in both Canada and the U.S., thanks to Canadian researchers who have developed a genetically modified pig which they want to breed commercially for human consumption. It is, however, a controversial topic.

At the centre of the furor, a line of pigs known as the "Enviropig." The scientist who developed it, the University of Guelph's Dr. Cecil Forsberg, explains that it is more environmentally friendly than your average pig because it uses phosphorus more efficiently. "Because of this characteristic, the manure contains anywhere from 30 to 65 per cent less phosphorus, and as a consequence, that manure is less polluting," says Forsberg.

He claims there is no effect on the physiological characteristics of the pigs. Forsberg points out the reproduction, litter size and speed of growth is the same as any conventional pig.

The associate vice-president of research at the University of Guelph explains (in simple terms) the genetic modification. "We've taken very, very small fragments of DNA from both a bacterium, as well as a mouse, and inserted them into a pig."

That is what is so disturbing to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. "This genetically engineered pig is entirely unnecessary. It's an unwanted and really grotesque genetic experiment that could be on grocery shelves, and if that happens, would cause huge consumer chaos," says coordinator Lucy Sharratt.

Right now, the application to have the Enviropig approved for human consumption is about a third of the way through the process with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is also before Health Canada, which won't reveal how far along it is, citing privacy issues.

That's concerning to Sharratt who says, "Consumers have no choice, the public has no access to information and really there are still these major questions of danger, especially when we are looking at a really complex technology like genetic engineering in a complex organism like a pig."

She adds Health Canada isn't equipped to deal with the question of genetically-modified animals because there are no existing regulations around them.

It also speaks to the broad question of whether food that is genetically modified should be labelled as such. "No genetically engineered food that's on the market is labeled," Sharratt says. "There is a really huge problem here with information for the public."

Sharratt says consumers have no say in this issue and that this is completely unacceptable. She argues there has never been a democratic debate in Canada about genetic engineering in the food system.

Moccia stands behind the Enviropig, but acknowledges it is controversial. "These are legitimate questions that society is asking about the ethics of so significantly manipulating the genetics of an animal," he says, adding, "as a university, our jobs are both to create and develop the science, but also to engage in a public debate about it."

As for whether it will ever make it to the marketplace, he says that will be up to society and government regulators."

Christina Stevens, Global News

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