When a burger's not quite what it's beefed up to be

Earlier this month, two volunteers in London taste-tested the world's first beef burger created in a lab using stem cells from a living cow. Stem cells are blank slate cells that can develop into any cell type to form any tissue or organ.

Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, the Netherlands, made the 140g patty at a cost of €250,000 (S$427,000). If the process can be scaled up industrially - within 20 years, Prof Post feels - you could find it in a Big Mac. You might think you won't ever eat it but the truth is that you could eat one without ever realising it.

This is because such bio-engineered food, usually referred to as being genetically modified (GM), is likely to be regulated very lightly. Under United States and Singapore laws, it won't even tell on the label at all. But in fact, a strong case can be made that all GM food should be labelled as such. This is because labelling gives consumers a choice. After all, GM food is "yucky" for many.

Many may also ask if it was safe to eat. Could those who regularly eat stem cell beef grow a horn or a hoof down the road?

Is there no possibility for bovine genes from cow stem cells to interfere with the expression of some human genes?

After all, a study published in Cell Research last year reported finding specific rice genes (called microRNA) in the blood of human subjects after eating rice. This meant that, after rice was digested, some rice genes did travel from the intestine into the blood where they were found to regulate the expression of some human genes.

By contrast, it is usually assumed that once digested, no genes are left around, all food ending up as nutrients that the body uses for growth and repair of tissues while any "junk" is excreted.

This study suggested, however, that genes in ingested food can remain after digestion and might interfere with our own genes.

While humans have not ended up becoming rice stalks thereby, this was natural rice. Stem cell beef may be a different proposition altogether. Stem cells are primordial cells that theoretically can differentiate into many or all of the different kinds of tissues and organs found in animals or humans.

What if ingesting stem cell beef introduces bovine genes with the primordial capacity to differentiate into different bovine tissues that go on to become incorporated into our DNA?

However, under World Trade Organisation (WTO) case law, GM food is regarded as safe for human consumption. Likewise, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) holds that, if a food is chemically indistinguishable from that derived from non-GM animals, it is safe for human consumption.

The same principle applies in Singapore. For the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), if a GM food is "substantially equivalent" to one that exists naturally, then its safety profile is to be treated as being similar. The AVA notes that the World Health Organisation, the European Food Safety Authority and the Royal Society in Britain share the view that GM food already on the market "is not inherently less safe than its conventional counterpart".

For these reasons, in the US and in Singapore, there is no requirement for GM labelling.

In 2008, the FDA ruled that milk and meat from cloned animals are safe to consume, being chemically indistinguishable from those from natural livestock. So they were not to be labelled as GM.

In 2009, the FDA permitted the first transgenic animal - one carrying genes from different species - to be marketed without being labelled as GM. This was an Atlantic salmon that had been given additional genes from the chinook salmon, ocean pout and Arctic char as well. It had three sets of chromosomes (containing genes) instead of two, as all animals do. Yet it was to have no GM label.

The FDA's approach is this: conventional lab tests (which don't look at genes) are used to see if meat from cloned cows, say, differs chemically from meat of natural livestock. Or presumably stem cell beef compared to natural beef.

If no chemical differences between them can be found, then it would be misleading to consumers to label GM food, the FDA reasons.

The production process may well differ but the end product is the same, the FDA feels.

But most people don't think of their food in terms of chemical or nutrient make-up per se. How the food is produced - with clones, adding cross species genes, or from stem cells in a petri dish, say - can affect people emotionally.

Food is not for the stomach alone. Food evokes emotions. So even if meat from clones or stem cell beef tasted exactly like their natural counterparts and had exactly the same nutrients, many of us may still be repulsed by the thought of eating such food.

Yet, in 2001, the FDA ruled that the consumer's right-to-know was not "sufficient justification to require labelling without an underlying nutritional or safety concern". It doesn't matter to the FDA if you find such food yucky, since it rules it safe to eat.

Thus stem cell beef is not likely to be labelled. If so, you won't know.

What you could do then is to avoid the store that says its burgers are 100 per cent US beef. Try to get beef from the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea or Indonesia instead.

In the 1990s, food scares such as the mad cow disease drove the EU to revamp its food regulatory oversight to emphasise food safety above everything else. Accordingly, in 1998, it banned GM food and GM feed imports.

The ban was then challenged at the WTO by the US, Canada and Argentina. In late 2006, the WTO ruled against the EU, finding it was not proven that GM food harmed human health.

This decision meant that neither the EU nor any other WTO member-state, including Singapore, may ban GM food imports.

To get around this, the EU imposed GM labelling requirements and also began to regulate food production processes. The latter meant that food producers wishing to sell in the EU must have a system to monitor for GM ingredients in their whole supply chain.

Likewise, Australia and New Zealand also require labelling of any food with over 1 per cent GM ingredients. The threshold in Japan is 5 per cent; in South Korea and Indonesia, it is 3 per cent.

Such labelling requirements do not break WTO law. According to US academics Mark Pollack and Gregory Shaffer - When Cooperation Fails: The International Law And Politics Of Genetically Modified Foods (2010) - the US is unlikely to challenge this EU labelling law at the WTO: even if it won, EU citizens may be pushed into boycotting all US food products.

Whatever the science may say, all GM food producers should respect the consumer's right to know.

AVA would do well to adopt the EU approach and require GM labelling, including stem cell beef, if it ever appears.

Andy Ho


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