News 1130 views update:Nov 30, 2009

Debate: Chickens fed GM feed means GM birds

An attack on poultry producer Inghams Enterprises could be based on a technicality with some scientific evidence indicating birds fed on genetically modified feed are not modified themselves, reports The National Business Review.

The Commerce Commission recently issued Inghams with a warming claiming it risked breaching the Fair Trading Act through false advertising. The company advertised its products as being GM-free, contained no GM ingredients, no added hormones or artificial colours. Inghams also stated that “Inghams GM policy is clear. Our poultry contains no GM content and are not genetically modified.”

The commission conducted an investigation into the company after media interest regarding its GM policy and its labelling raised concern after allegations of false advertising emerged most recently in June this year.

Inghams claimed its chickens were GM free even though its birds were eating feed mixed with 13% soy, reports state. The commission asked University of Canterbury professor of genetics and molecular biology Jack Heinemann to research whether chickens that have eaten GM feed could contain GM ingredients in their meat.

Prof Heinemann said; “The cumulative strength of the positive detection reviewed leaves me in no reasonable uncertainty that GM plant material can transfer to animals exposed to GM feed in their diets or environment, and that there can be residual difference in animals or animal-products as a result of exposure to GM feed."

However, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority said international scientific consensus showed that animals that eat GM feed are themselves not genetically modified.

In New Zealand, food that has been modified, as in the DNA or the protein present in the final food (animal), or if the food has “altered characteristics as a result of the GM process” has to be labelled GM.

In Inghams case, the chickens themselves were not modified - only 13% of the feed was modified.

In an email to NBR, AgSearch scientist Jimmy Suttie said: “Professor Heinemann's use of English, as reported, is confusing. He says (effectively) there is a chance that the plant DNA may be transferred to animals and that this transfer could lead to residual differences… But in response, while it is undeniable that plant DNA is ingested by animals when they eat a feed, it is by no means certain that that DNA will be incorporated into the animal’s genome rather than being fully digested. For example, every time you eat a fresh tomato or lettuce, you consume plant DNA. This is digested by our bodies.”

Dr Suttie said just as consumed tomato DNA does not become a part of your DNA, chicken feed does not become part of a bird’s DNA.

“Even if any DNA were to be incorporated into the eaters genes, this would be as single constituents of DNA (nucleotides) rather than a piece of gene sequence. These constituents carry no genetic information, in themselves. In addition as the genetic code is conserved, then whether this DNA was from a GM or a non GM source is immaterial: the DNA itself is identical."

Suttie went on to say that any residual effect of that DNA being incorporated into the genome is very unlikely, and that the source of the DNA, GM or non-GM would not influence the chance of such incorporation.

“In the vanishing small chance that a residual effect of any DNA was found, the question of the relevance of that, in terms of food safety, is left hanging by Professor Heinemann. Even the professor uses the term 'can be' rather than a more definitive verb,” he added.

Dr Suttie said GM corn, soy and canola have been grown worldwide since 1996, and the products have been consumed safely by animals and humans alike.

Source: The National Business Review

Natalie Berkhout

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