Report: Safeguarding Public Health

Antibiotic Resistance Marker Genes in Genetically Engineered Foods

Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

No federal laws have ever been passed to govern the regulation of genetically engineered foods and crops. The regulations in place, cobbled together under existing statutes, require no mandatory pre-market or post-market health testing. When the regulations were legally challenged in the 1980s, the court found they were flawed but did not set them aside, reasoning that they were only an initial effort to set policy. Instead, the regulations remain largely in place, although weakened over time. One result of this lax oversight is that potentially unsafe practices, such as the inclusion of antibiotic resistance marker genes, have gone forward with far too little scientific and public debate and scrutiny.

Many genetically engineered crops on the market currently contain antibiotic resistance marker genes because of the imprecision of the gene insertion process. Scientists use these genes to determine whether a gene has inserted itself into a target organism. As a result of incorporating these antibiotic resistance genes, these crops threaten the already growing problem of antibiotic resistance, which the world medical community acknowledges as a serious public health concern. Infectious diseases are responsible for one-quarter of all the deaths in the world, second only to cardiovascular diseases. As new strains of bacteria and viruses emerge that are resistant to drugs and antibiotics, infections become more difficult to treat. 

The market for genetically engineered crops hinges in large part upon their acceptance by food processors. Food companies such as Kraft Foods, the largest food company in the United States and the second largest in the world, can join the call for an end to antibiotic resistance marker genes and tell biotechnology companies they do not want to put their customers at risk. Corporations have set a precedent for this type of action: McDonald's and other large corporate consumers of chicken have played a significant role in reducing in the use of antibiotics fed to chickens for non-therapeutic purposes. If food processors, as potential customers, clearly articulate that antibiotic resistance marker genes are unacceptable, manufacturers will have no incentive to continue their use.

Antibiotic resistance marker genes are just one example of how genetically engineered crops should be better regulated, so products that should never make it to market do not, and health concerns are addressed before, not after, products are commercialized. In order to accomplish this goal with regards to antibiotic resistance marker genes, products on the market with them should be removed, and no new products should be approved that contain antibiotic resistance marker genes. In addition, the state Public Interest Research Groups, along with our coalition partners in Genetically Engineered Food Alert, have issued the following call to action:

Genetically engineered food ingredients or crops should not be allowed on the market unless:

1) Independent safety testing demonstrates they have no harmful effects on human health or the environment,
2) They are labeled to ensure the consumer's right to know, and
3) The biotechnology corporations that manufacture them are held responsible for any harm.

Priority Action

The overuse of antibiotics on factory farms is threatening these lifesaving antibiotics. Call on the Obama administration to put an end to the worst practices. 

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