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FDA seeks altered-gene piglets sold as food

(Thursday, Feb. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY: The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it is trying to track down as many as 386 piglets that might have been genetically engineered and wrongfully sold into the U.S. food supply.

The focus of the FDA investigation are pigs raised by researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. They engineered the animals with two genes: One is a cow gene that increases milk production in the sow. The other, a synthetic gene, makes the milk easier for piglets to digest. The goal was to raise bigger pigs faster.

There has been no evidence that either genetically altered plants or animals trigger human illness, but critics warn that potential side effects remain unknown. University officials say their tests showed the piglets were not born with the altered genes, but FDA rules require even the offspring of genetically engineered animals to be destroyed so they don't get into the food supply.

The FDA, in a quickly arranged news conference Wednesday prompted by inquiries by USA TODAY, said the University of Illinois will face possible sanctions and fines for selling the piglets to a livestock broker, who in turn sells to processing plants.

Both the FDA and the university say the pigs that entered the market do not pose a risk to consumers. But the investigation follows action by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in December to fine a Texas company that contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans with corn that had been genetically altered to produce a vaccine for pigs.

Opponents see such cases as evidence of the need for more government oversight of a burgeoning area of scientific research.

''This is a small incident, but it's incidents like this that could destroy consumer confidence and export confidence,'' said Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. ''We already have Europe shaky on biotech. The countries to whom we export are going to look at this.''

The University of Illinois said it tested the DNA of every piglet eight times to make sure that the animal hadn't inherited the genetic engineering of its mother. Those piglets that did were put back into the study. Those that didn't were sold to the pig broker.

''Any pig that has tested negative for the genes since 1999 has been sent off to market,'' said Charles Zukoski, vice chancellor for research.

But FDA deputy commissioner Lester Crawford said that under the terms of the university's agreement with the FDA, the researchers were forbidden to remove the piglets without FDA approval.

''The University of Illinois failed to check with FDA to see whether or not the animals could be sold on the open market. And they were not to be used under any circumstance for food,'' he said.

The FDA is responsible for regulating and overseeing transgenic animals because such genetic manipulation is considered an unapproved animal drug.