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Are Biotech Foods Safe?

If you've recently eaten a taco or snacked on a peach, there's a good chance you have eaten one of the many items on supermarket shelves that has been bioengineered. The Food and Drug Administration is beginning public meetings to address the question: How safe are these foods? Early Show Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy has details.


Bioengineered, also known as genetically engineered or modified, foods have an altered genetic makeup. Scientists can now borrow a genetic code from a plant or an animal and transfer it to another plant to give it a desired trait.

For example, crops are genetically engineered to resist pests and disease, which allows farmers to reduce the use of pesticides. Biotech fruits and vegetables are also created to improve taste and quality.

Examples

It's estimated that genetically engineered crops cover one fourth of U.S. cropland.

Consumer Reports tested foods containing corn or soybeans, since those crops are the most likely to be genetically engineered, and found biotech ingredients in certain brands of powdered baby formula, veggie burgers and tortilla chips.

Produce such as melons and bananas as well as tomatoes and potatoes have also been genetically altered to improve crop yield and quality.

Concerns

Some scientists have raised concerns about whether the process of genetic engineering has potential health risks. One concern is that some people could have an allergic reaction to the genetically altered food.

Back in the 1990s, soybeans were being modified with the gene of a Brazil nut. In pre-market testing, some volunteers who were allergic to Brazil nuts also reacted to the soybeans. Those soybeans never made it to market.

Another concern is that the pesticides that some plants are engineered to produce (to resist pests) may also be poisonous to people. Then there's the issue that a biotech food may no longer have the same nutritional content.

To date, there is no evidence that any biotech food has done anyone harm.

The FDA does no mandatory testing so the companies that produce these foods are on the honor system. They self-test their own products.

At this point, there is no way of knowing if the foods we eat have bioengineered ingredients because labeling is not required.

At the FDA's public meeting, the public will be asked what it feels is the appropriate means of providing information about biotech foods.

And just a week ago, federal lawmakers introduced legislation that would require labeling of foods made with biotech crops. The controversy over genetically engineered foods in Europe led to mandatory labeling there.

There are no answers to questions about long-term effects because the technology is so new. But the hope for the future is that biotechnology will eventually create foods that will be better for people, like vitamin-enhanced foods or edibles that could lower your cholesterol.

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