The masquerade of Franken-food


By Richard Hindmarsh

Genetic engineering (GE) is now being introduced for conventional food processing industries. This includes both the manufacturing process, such as fermentation, and the production of designer or novel foods.

It's called "Franken-food" by critics. Heightened consumer awareness of designer foods followed by resistance to them is a trend in the USA and Europe. The trend is parallel to increasing consumer concern about foods manufactured through synthetic chemical processes, and is strengthening the preference for organic foods.

International surveys conducted in 1991 showed that the public is extremely reserved about GE. A European Community survey on recombinant-DNA bovine growth hormone (BST) in Germany, France, Italy and the UK, covered 71.5% of the EC's total population. On the question of whether milk and milk products from farms using the hormone should be clearly labelled, over 82% of respondents were in favour. If such milk were marketed, 65% of Germans and Italians, and about 40% of British and French respondents said they would buy less milk, or no milk at all.

Another EC poll of 12,800 people from all 12 EC countries showed that the countries with the greatest awareness of genetic engineering liked it the least.

In response to concerns about GE food in the US, the Pure Foods Campaign was launched in 1992. It is led by 1000 of America's top chefs. "It seems very unnatural to me", said chef Bradley Ogden. "I like organically raised fruits and vegetables. It's a much purer form of nutrition".

The campaign has already had two effects. The first was that Campbell Soup Company rescinded its intention to use a slow-rot tomato "Flavr Savr" for soups and sauces. It appears that for now the image of genetically engineered tomatoes is not compatible with the wholesome, safe image important to Campbell.

The second was that the city of Chicago, in August 1993, passed into law a first-of-its kind labelling ordinance that read: "Whenever a food purveyor establishment displays for sale to the general public genetically engineered foods, the establishment shall post and maintain in a prominent location near the display a sign that ... shall state the following: 'This food product has been genetically engineered'.".

Joe Esformes of Triple E Produce Corp. of California — one of the US's largest tomato grower-shippers — told a biotechnology workshop at the Produce Marketing Association's convention, "We don't feel genetically engineered produce should come on the same fruit stand as our product without being identified".

Similarly, Julie Hill of the UK Green Alliance says, "Consumers have a right to know in all cases when gene technology has been used in food manufacturing". For example, if a tomato has been engineered to contain a peanut gene, and the consumer is allergic to peanuts, it is essential that the consumer be aware of this.

Silence in Australia

In Australia, though, there is little public awareness of what's going to happen to our hamburgers and many other foodstuffs. The organics industry is quiet, the food industry is quiet, the media are pretty quiet, the public has not been surveyed, and the federal government is currently in a legitimising process for the introduction of Franken-food.

To avoid the overseas image crisis of genetically altered food in Australia, the bio-industry has introduced various long-term strategies. A key one is to hoodwink the public and politicians by promoting GE as an environmentally sound technology that fits within an organic approach to sustainable agriculture. Fundamentally, the bio-industry wants genetically engineered organisms to be classified as additives in organic foods, and thus be stamped as safe food made in the most natural way possible. In other words, "Let it masquerade as organic".

These arguments ignore corporate domination of genetic engineering research and development (50% of proposals to field test genetically engineered food products over an 18-month period in 1991-92 came from chemical corporations), as well as ecological and social problems posed by the genetic engineering approach to producing food.

Genetic engineering is directly at odds with the preference for the natural which imbues organic agriculture. Not only are modern gene transfer techniques wholly artificial, the organisms they produce can differ from natural or traditionally bred ones by containing genes from unrelated organisms — mice, humans, algae, and so on.

Second, genetically engineered organisms pose uncertain and, in some cases novel, risks to the environment and human health. These risks include new toxicants, diminished nutritional quality, new substances that significantly alter food composition, new allergens from non-food sources, diminished effectiveness of some antibiotics, unexpected effects, harmful side effects of deleted genes, "counterfeit" freshness, hazards to domestic animals, harmful effects on wildlife and habitats and uncharacterised genetic material and gene products.

Despite these basic differences the bio-industry continues to lobby that genetically engineered products should be included under organics standards.

There is no real basis for integration between the two approaches, but if the bio-industry succeeded in its plans to swallow up organics, what would a biotechnological organics future look like?

The brave new world of bio-technological organics would include genetically engineered fruits, vegetables, dairy products, fish and red meats — new foods not imagined a few years ago. At the "Transgenic Organics Cafe" run by enterprising bio-entrepreneurs, what's on the menu? For appetisers — spiced potatoes with waxmoth genes, tomato juice with flounder gene; for entree — blackened catfish with trout gene, scalloped potatoes with chicken gene, corn bread with firefly gene; for dessert — rice pudding with pea gene; and for beverage — milk from BST-supplemented cows. This is not a joke: all of these items have been produced by genetic engineers and field tested.

It's already happening in Australia. A genetically modified baker's yeast for improved leavening has been approved. BST was reviewed by the Australian Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Council and, although banned (for purely economic reasons), is now sure to be further reviewed given the recent decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to approve its use.

Field trials of a virus-resistant potato are being conducted by the CSIRO with financial backing from Coca-Cola Amital, and Unilever is conducting field trials of slow-rot tomatoes (where the gene that codes for rotting has been reversed). Engineered rennet, a cheese setting agent, traditionally made from calves' stomachs, has been approved for use in Australia since 1988. Because labelling is not required, genetically engineered rennet for many Australian cheeses is used without wide public knowledge.


Due to pressure from critics, events overseas and a parliamentary inquiry into genetic engineering, Australia's National Food Authority is now determining standards for GE food products and processes. This of course also legitimises the introduction of Franken-food, and ignores non-government consultation with the public to assess public concerns and acceptance.

Labelling is central to the legitimising process. The bio-industry argues it will be disadvantaged if labelling or "inappropriate" labelling is required.

Some companies will label engineered food voluntarily, but only where the engineering has produced a trait with direct appeal or benefit to the consumer — for example, improved nutrition, taste or storage quality. But these products are only a small portion of the foods headed for Australian tables.

A look at the food crops that have undergone field testing internationally in 1991-92 shows that only 7% have been altered for direct consumer benefit; 93% have been engineered to facilitate production and processing. There would be virtually no incentive to label these voluntarily.

Two "bio-incidents" have placed enormous pressure on the government to introduce appropriate labelling. The first, in 1988 (exposed in 1990 by the Australian Conservation Foundation), involved the release of 53 transgenic pigs from the Adelaide University-Metromeats company Metrotech, to an abattoir for slaughter and human consumption without proper authorisation and without consumer knowledge.

The second incident, during 1989-1990, was the L-tryptophan debacle. It is estimated that more than 30 people were killed and more than 5000 afflicted with the onset of the crippling blood disease EMS in the USA, coinciding with the sale by Japanese manufacturer Showa Denko of a batch of L-tryptophan (a food supplement) manufactured in a fermentation system using genetically engineered bacteria. To date, the US Food and Drug Administration has not ruled out genetically engineered microbes as the causative agent in the L-tryptophan episode.

The threat of misrepresentation of the organics industry is further cause for appropriate labelling of genetically engineered food, and the organics industry, alongside the consumer and green movements, should ensure that its voice is heard clearly in this debate, and that organic food and Franken-food be kept completely apart. Consumers should be able to count on the organic label to mean safe and fresh food made in the most natural way possible.
[Richard Hindmarsh is a social ecologist and member of the Australian Gen-Ethics Network. This article was first published in Acres Australia. It is slightly abridged here.]