FDA says no labels necessary for genetically engineered meats/fish they classify as drugs

September 20, 2008

Behold the featherless chicken, created by Scientists at the genetics faculty at the Rehovot Agronomy Institute near Tel Aviv, Israel. The idea behind the development of this naked bird is that it will create a more ‘convenient’ and energy efficient chicken that can live in crowded environments like factory farms. Not growing feathers saves energy that can be used to grow meat.

Think there’s no way this sad version of a chicken could end up as your next meal? Think again. This past week the FDA opened the way for genetically engineered chickens, salmon, cows, and other fish and animals to move from the laboratory to your dinner table, unveiling an approval process that would classify the modified creatures as drugs. No labels will be required.

“There is no special labeling requirement simply because the animal itself was engineered,” says Randall Lutter, a deputy commissioner for policy.

FDA regulates GE animals under the “new animal drug” provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), FDA’s regulations for new animal drugs. Companies are not required to alert consumers when antibiotics, hormones, or other drugs are used in raising the animals.

The decision does not affect cloned animals or their offspring, which earlier this year were declared safe as a food source by the FDA.

Many experts fear that the proposed regulations do not go far enough to protect and reassure the public. In particular, they argue that the approval process would be highly secretive to protect the commercial interests of the companies involved and that the new rules do not place sufficient weight on the environmental impact of what many consider to be Frankenstein animals.

In an effort to answer questions the FDA has put forth the following Q&A:

Q:What is genetic engineering? A: Genetic engineering is a process in which recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology is used to introduce new characteristics or traits into organisms.  When scientists splice together pieces of DNA and introduce a spliced DNA segment into an organism to give the organism new properties, it’s called rDNA technology. The spliced piece of DNA is called the rDNA construct. Genetic engineering has been widely used in agriculture to make crops resistant to certain pests or herbicides, in medicine to develop microbes that can produce pharmaceuticals for human or animal use, and in food to produce microorganisms that aid in baking, brewing, and cheese-making.

Q: What is a genetically engineered animal? A: A genetically engineered (GE) animal is one that contains an rDNA construct that’s intended to give the animal a new trait or characteristic. Examples of the kind of GE animals that are being developed are provided below.

Q: What kinds of GE animals are being developed? A: Many kinds of GE animals are in development, although none have yet been approved for commercial use.  

  • Biopharm animals are those that have undergone genetic engineering to produce particular substances, such as human insulin, for pharmaceutical use. 
  • Research animals may be engineered to make them more susceptible to particular diseases, such as cancer, in order to gain a better basic understanding of the disease for the development of new therapies or in order to evaluate new medical therapies.
  • Xenotransplant animals are being engineered so they can be used as sources for cells, tissues or organs that can be used for transplantation into humans.
  • Companion animals that are modified to enrich or enhance their interaction with humans (i.e., hypoallergenic pets). 
  • Disease resistant animals may be used either for food use or biopharm applications. These animals have received modifications that make them resistant to common diseases, such as mastitis (a very painful infection of the udder) in dairy cows, or particularly deadly diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
  • Food use animals have been engineered to provide healthier meat, such as pigs that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids at levels comparable to those in fish.

Q: How are GE animals regulated? A: FDA regulates GE animals under the “new animal drug”1  provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), FDA’s regulations for new animal drugs. This draft guidance is intended to help industry understand the requirements that are established by statute and regulations as they apply to these animals, including those of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and to inform the public about the process FDA is using to regulate GE animals. The draft guidance does not create any new obligations. It clarifies how the regulations apply to GE animals.

Q: What’s the difference between animal clones and GE animals?  A: The animal clones that were the subject of FDA’s risk assessment on animal cloning (released in January of 2008) are “just clones”—that is, they are copies of individual conventionally-bred animals, and do not contain any rDNA constructs. What can be confusing is that an animal clone can be genetically engineered (i.e., have an rDNA construct introduced into it), and a GE animal can be reproduced by cloning. Our draft guidance covers GE animals, irrespective of whether they were reproduced by cloning. It does not cover animal clones that do not contain an rDNA construct (“just clones”).

Q: Why is FDA regulating GE animals differently from animal clones?  A: Clones are really just genetic copies of the animals from which they are produced. The purpose of the FDA risk assessment was to determine whether cloning posed any new risks to the health of animals and whether animal clones posed new food safety risks. The conclusion of that risk assessment was that there are no new risks associated with those animals, that food from cattle, swine, and goat clones, and the progeny of the clone of any species traditionally consumed as food was as safe to eat as that from conventionally bred animals, and that no new regulatory requirements are required beyond those that apply to other, conventionally-bred animals.  By contrast, GE animals have changes to their genetic material that may potentially affect the health of the GE animal or the safety of food from the GE animal. Therefore, there are risk-based reasons for FDA to require their approval.

Q: Will GE animals be regulated the same if they’re used for food or if they’re intended to produce pharmaceuticals for people? A: GE animals are subject to premarket oversight whether they are intended to be used for food or to produce pharmaceuticals or other useful products. There may be some differences in what the actual oversight process entails depending on the kinds of risk(s) the GE animals may pose, and the kinds of uses for which they are intended. In addition, the pharmaceuticals produced from GE animals must be approved through the same process as applies to other pharmaceuticals. The Agency may also issue other guidances focused on particular kinds or uses of GE animals, such as biopharm animals (animals intended to produce pharmaceuticals for use in humans or other animals). In general, we do not anticipate that biopharm animals will be used for food.

Q: What kind of post-market surveillance will there be? A: Post-market surveillance will vary depending on the GE animal. However, as with conventional new animal drugs, the guidance tells sponsors (individuals or companies submitting GE animal applications to FDA for review) that in their application they should demonstrate that the rDNA construct is stable in the animal over time, and that the GE animal retains the new characteristics over time. As with conventional drugs, if additional information shows that there are safety concerns, or if the GE animal no longer has the characteristics claimed for it, FDA can take steps to have the GE animal removed from the market.

Q: Will FDA be looking at effects on the health of animals?  A: Before FDA can approve a new animal drug, it must determine that the drug is safe for the animal receiving it. Therefore, before we can approve a GE animal, we must determine that the rDNA construct is safe for the animal containing it. To do that, we look at the health of the animal. In the Draft Guidance, we provide recommendations on how developers can assess the health of their animals.

Q: Will food from GE animals be in the food supply? A: FDA has so far not approved or authorized any GE animals for use in food. However, we are reviewing applications requesting approval of GE animals intended for food use. We can not predict when we will complete those reviews, but we will not approve any GE animal for food use unless we find that the food from those GE animals is safe. It would be illegal to introduce food from an unapproved GE animal into the food supply without FDA permission. We work closely with GE animal producers to make sure that they keep good records of their animals and that none enter the food supply without FDA approval.

Q: Will food from GE animals be labeled? A: FDA does not require that food from GE animals be labeled to indicate that it comes from GE animals, just as it does not require that food from GE plants be labeled to indicate that it comes from GE plants. However, if food from a GE animal is different from its non-engineered counterpart (for example, if it has a different nutritional profile), the difference could be material information that would have to be indicated in the labeling. Marketers may voluntarily label their foods as coming from GE or non-GE animals, as long as the labeling is truthful and not misleading. FDA has oversight of labeling of fish and seafood, of milk and other dairy products, and of whole eggs in their shells. The U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) ensure that the proper labels are used for meat, poultry, and other egg products.

Q: Will GE animals be labeled?  A: Developers of GE animals will need to have labeling accompanying the animals. The guidance recommends that the labeling describe the GE animal (e.g., common name/breed/line, genus, species, GE animal line, rDNA construct), and its intended use. Where the labeling for a GE animal contains animal care or safety information (e.g., husbandry or containment), we recommend that the labeling accompany the animal throughout all stages of its lifecycle.

Q: What other agencies are involved in the regulation of these animals? A: Depending on the species and use of the animal in question, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), FSIS, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others may play a role in the regulation of GE animals.  FDA is currently working very closely with these agencies and Departments to coordinate the regulation of these animals.

Q: What about environmental effects? A: Environmental evaluation that meets the requirements of NEPA is required prior to any approval. We expect that the environmental risks that may be posed by GE animals will differ on a case-by-case basis. For example, the concerns raised by a GE cow that is resistant to mastitis will be very different from the concerns raised by a GE fresh-water fish that is engineered to grow more rapidly. We will work closely with individual GE animal producers to make sure that their environmental assessments address all of the potential risks these animals may pose.

Q: Can food from biopharm animals be eaten? A: In general, biopharm animals are not intended to be eaten: they are engineered to produce a therapeutic substance, and their value is in that product and not the meat or milk from the animal.  Given the relatively small numbers of any particular line of biopharm animal, the large amount of food safety data that is required to be provided to FDA for each GE animal line intended to enter the food supply, and the kind of food safety issues that pharmaceutical chemicals present in such animals would generally pose, it would be very unusual for developers of biopharm animals to want to enter their animals into the food supply. Without FDA approval for food use, it would be illegal for a company to direct any of its GE animals into the food supply. It is much more likely that these animals will be disposed of in a way that does not involve human food use when they have reached the end of their lives.

However, if a developer provided sufficient evidence of safety and FDA approved the biopharm animal for food use, then the decision on whether to enter it into the food supply would be a marketing issue for the food producer and the developer and not a food safety issue for the public.  

Q: What are the potential benefits of GE animals for consumers? A: Many GE animals in development are intended to have direct benefits to consumers. For instance, biopharm animals are being developed to produce various pharmaceuticals for humans or other animals such as clotting factors, growth factors and inhibitors used in cancer therapy, some of which cannot now be produced in sufficient quantities to meet medical needs. Some GE animals are under development to produce healthier food. And other animals are under development to have indirect benefits to consumers, such as decreased environmental impact by excreting lower levels of pollutants in their wastes.

Q: Are there any GE animals on the market now? A: In 2003, FDA chose to exercise enforcement discretion for a GE aquarium fish that glows in the dark. FDA made this decision in part because the fish (Zebra danio) is not a species used for food, and in part because the agency was able to determine that it did not pose any additional environmental risks compared with conventional Zebra danios. (Zebra danios are unable to survive outside the very warm waters of the tropics, which effectively limits the ability of an escaped or released fish to affect the U.S. environment.) To read FDA’s statement on GloFish, click here: http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2003/NEW00994.html 

Additionally, there are many different kinds of GE rats and mice used in laboratory research throughout the world.

Q: How long have GE animals existed? Why is FDA stepping in now? A: The first GE animal, a mouse, was produced in the 1980s. Since that time, the field has grown enormously. FDA has been monitoring and evaluating the development of GE animals   and believes that it is important now to provide the growing industry with a clear and transparent regulatory path. We also think it’s important to let other stakeholders, including the public, know our policies and requirements on this issue. Because we are a science-based public health agency, we are using a rigorous regulatory approach to ensure the public health, while providing GE animal developers a science-based path by which they can bring innovative products to the market. In addition, the Codex Alimentarius, an international food safety standards organization sponsored by the United Nations, recently adopted a guideline on assessing the safety of food from GE animals. We therefore realized this was a good time to ensure that developers, both in the U.S. and around the world, understood what FDA’s regulatory requirements are regarding GE animals and food from such animals.

Q: Why do we need GE animals? Isn’t there enough food available already? A: Although GE animals are not currently being developed to address world food shortages, it is possible they could play such a role at some time in the future. At this time, the largest group of GE animals under development is for biopharm purposes. The GE animals that are intended for food are intended to fill particular needs, some of which might ultimately have a role in helping to ease food shortages such as the ability to resist certain diseases, grow well in warmer conditions, or have a smaller environmental impact.

Q: Do GE animals look different from other animals?  A: Despite some of the doctored photographs that you may have seen circulating on the internet, adding a new gene to an animal does not result in outlandish physical combinations, such as a bird with the head of a rabbit. Genetic engineering simply doesn’t work that way.

Almost all GE animals will look the same as their conventional counterparts, although there are some products in which the point of the GE process is to make the animal look slightly different (such as the GloFish).

Q: Is the offspring of a GE animal also considered GE? A: In general, most GE animals that are being developed at this time are intended to pass their new GE traits on to their offspring. Such traits are called heritable. The initial GE animal and all of its descendants that have inherited the GE trait are called GE animals. Other GE animals have “non-heritable” traits, meaning that none of the offspring will have the trait. The draft guidance being released deals only with GE animals bearing heritable traits.

Q: Is it possible that GE animals could displace or replace the conventional species? A: Over time, it is at least theoretically possible that certain GE traits might be widely adopted. For example, were ducks and chickens developed that could not carry or transmit avian influenza, it is possible that many producers of such animals, particularly in vulnerable parts of the world, would want to introduce that trait throughout their flocks. Such a trend would be no different than what already has occurred with the popular conventional livestock breeds currently used in agriculture. Such widespread adoption of any particular GE trait would likely be quite unusual.  It also would be extremely unlikely for any GE animal to accidentally displace conventional animals. Most developers of the GE animals will likely control their breeding opportunities to further their business interests. For example, GE animals producing pharmaceutical products will likely be carefully confined in controlled conditions, such as limited access barns, to ensure that diseases or other contaminants do not make their way into the final pharmaceutical products.

Q: Is there a chance that this technology could be used on humans? A: Gene therapy has been used to attempt to treat various human diseases since 1990, and is subject to strict FDA oversight by the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER) under a process different from that described in this draft guidance. Human gene therapy is currently limited to non-heritable therapies; that is, people who receive the new genes as part of the gene therapy can’t pass them on to their children.

Q: What exactly does the review process of a GE animal entail? A: The guidance recommends a review process that includes seven categories:

  • Product definition: a broad statement characterizing the GE animal and the claim being made for the GE animal;
  • Molecular characterization of the construct: a description of the rDNA construct and how it was made; 
  • Molecular characterization of the GE animal lineage: a description of the rDNA construct that was introduced into the animal, and whether it is passed to the offspring in a predictable way; 
  • Phenotypic characterization of the GE animal: information describing the GE animal, including comprehensive data on the health of the animal; 
  • Durability plan: demonstrates that the offspring (over multiple generations) continue to inherit the rDNA construct and that they continue to express the new trait;
  • Environmental and food/feed safety: the assessment of any environmental impacts, and for GE animals intended for food, that food from those GE animals is safe to eat for humans and/or animals;
  • Claim validation: a demonstration that the GE animal has the characteristics that the developer says it has.

Q: When will the first approvals be granted? A: No GE animals will be approved until FDA determines that the rDNA construct in the animals is safe for the animals and is effective, i.e., that the GE animals do indeed possess the traits that they were intended to express, and that, if the animals are intended to be used as food, the food is safe to eat.  All approvals will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and as with any approval, it is difficult to estimate how long it will take to produce the data for the agency to evaluate, and when any one of those reviews will be completed.

Q: Will any approvals be granted before this draft guidance is published in final form? A: This guidance explains how the existing laws and regulatory requirements apply to GE animals. The guidance does not itself impose any requirements, but instead provides recommendations for how sponsors can meet legal and regulatory requirements. We cannot predict when any approvals will be completed, but the timing of such approvals is unrelated to the issuance of the final guidance. 

Q: How will the public know when FDA has granted an approval? A: As for any new animal drug approval, the agency will post approvals of GE animals on FDA’s website and will publish the approval in its official listing of approved applications in the Code of Federal Regulations. It is likely that for the first GE animal approval(s), we will convene a public advisory committee meeting prior to the completion of the approval.

Q: What about the ethics of genetically engineering animals? A: The issue of ethics is an extremely complicated one. On the one hand, the standard for approval does not explicitly include ethics—FDA must regulate on the basis of safety and effectiveness. However, many people would consider animal health and safety to be a subcategory of the broader term “ethics.” To that end, the regulatory approach proposed in the Draft Guidance closely examines animal health and requires a finding of safety to animals, and so we believe that we are addressing those particular concerns. 

We do, however, recognize that genetically engineering animals may raise non-scientific questions that are important to some members of the public. Therefore, we have participated in, and will continue to participate in, discussions on ethical issues to ensure that interested parties have the correct facts in order to make informed decisions about these animals.

Q: Where can I get more information about genetic engineering and the GE draft Guidance for Industry? A: The draft Guidance for Industry is available at | html | pdf |

Q: How can I voice my opinion about the draft Guidance for Industry? A: The public can comment on the draft Guidance for Industry by going to http://www.regulations.gov/, and entering docket number FDA-2008-D-0394. Comments will be accepted until November 18, 2008.

http://www.fda.gov/cvm/GEconsumersQA.htm

http://ww w.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sci-genetic19-2008sep19,0,4097901.story
http://www.fda.gov/consumer/updates/ge_animals091808.html
http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/36614/title/FDA_releases_guidelines_for_genetically_modified_animals

2 Responses to “FDA says no labels necessary for genetically engineered meats/fish they classify as drugs”

  1. Nigel Says:

    Wow, this is pretty disturbing stuff. I will post a link from my blog.

  2. undoGE Says:

    […] begin accepting applications for commercialization of GE animals and fish. Please read the story at Food Democracy, especially the FAQ published by the FDA. It is incredibly […]


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