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A very public attack on poultry producer Inghams Enterprises could all be based on a technicality with some scientific evidence indicating birds fed on genetically manipulated feed are not modified themselves.
Last week, the Commerce Commission issued Inghams with a warming claiming it risked breaching the Fair Trading Act through false advertising.
Inghams advertised its products were GM free, contained no GM ingredients, no added hormones or artificial colours. The company also stated on its websites 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 during January 2008 and June 2009.
Inghams claimed its chickens were GM free even though its birds were eating feed mixed with 13% soy. 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."
But 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.
But in Inghams case, the chickens themselves were not modified. Only 13% of the feed was modified, which was done to fight off Round Up resistance.
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.
"Any residual effect of that DNA being incorporated into the genome is very unlikely, and 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.”
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.