Vanessa Espino/HIGHLANDER
Vanessa Espino/HIGHLANDER

As part of a UCR public policy seminar series, Director of Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Gregory Jaffe gave a lecture on the hotly debated topic of genetically engineered (GE) foods — foods derived from organisms with artificially modified DNA — and the way they are regulated in the United States. His lecture, “Fitting Square Pegs into Round Holes: Regulatory and Policy Issues Surrounding Genetically Engineered foods,” occurred on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Outlining the potential risks that GE crops may bring to the public, Jaffe said, “We’re adding a new DNA that produces a new gene that produces a new protein. We know that some proteins could be allergens. We want to make sure we’re not adding new allergens to the food supply.” Another risk is the increase in toxicity that GE foods may introduce to already existing low-level toxins in food. But he stressed that there has not been a single case where GE foods have harmed a human in the United States.

The GE foods in the U.S. are regulated under the 1986 Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology (CFRB) through several U.S. federal agencies, in order to diminish potential health and environmental risks. Under the CFRB, genetically modified crops are considered to pose the same risks as naturally occurring crops. Like unmodified natural foods, GE foods fall under the broad-spectrum regulation of 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which allows the FDA to oversee the safety of foods, drugs and cosmetics.

However, Jaffe feels that the 1938 regulatory law does not properly distinguish what crops fall under the category of GE foods. “Solely because we use these old laws and try to fit this new technology into these old laws … it didn’t fit in very well,” he expressed about the lack of a distinctly stated definition of genetically altered crops in U.S. laws.

Food producers are responsible for making sure that their GE plants are legally safe to advertise and distribute on the market and may voluntarily consult with the FDA for food safety assessments. But Jaffe considers the process “wishy-washy” because the FDA has no clear authority for regulating GE foods, which are then sold in international markets.

In 2004, Jaffe worked closely with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who introduced a bill that gave the FDA that very authority to regulate GE foods, but the bill was met with opposition and ultimately killed in Congress.

Dr. Alan McHughen, UCR biotechnology professor and author of “Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods,” believes that the regulatory system has worked so far in terms of safety, but believes that it can be more efficient.

“One of our biggest problems in agriculture is that we spend so many of our limited resources on (GE foods) and their process, that we don’t have the resources to actually address the things that still cause problems,” naming pathogens like E. coli and salmonella that still manage to find their way into foods despite the system in place.

UCR third-year undergraduate and biology major Brittany Fellows gave her reaction about the seminar. “I think it was very eye-opening to understand that there are issues and there are risks especially with (GE foods) and I think he came from a very good point of view doing it in a policy-action way.”

Jaffe and the CSPI are seeking to reform the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in the future.