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Gene-edited animals stuck in limbo as consumers catch up with the science

For decades, animal scientists have continued to prove the usefulness of genetically modifying livestock. Many studies show that small genetic changes can make animal production more environmentally friendly and improve animal health—while keeping products safe for consumption. Yet no products from gene-edited animals are in American grocery stores.

Now a new article in The Washington Post describes the roadblocks—from consumer opinions to regulatory gaps—that have slowed the approval of gene-edited animal products.

The article highlights the work of geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis. For many years, Van Eenennaam has advocated for better public understanding of gene-editing. Her work (which includes more than 70 peer-reviewed studies) has shown that genetic modification can improve animal health and welfare, in addition to benefitting the environment.

As The Washington Post reports, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears to be opening the door to approving more gene-edited products. The FDA recently issued a final rule for labeling of gene-edited products, but there are differences in how the administration treats plants versus animal items.

"Gene-edited plants will soon be in the grocery store, but similar tinkering with the DNA of animals faces a far more uncertain future. The regulatory process for getting animals approved is more complex and treats the edited DNA as a veterinary drug — a difference that animal scientists argue will effectively kill their field by preventing innovations that could make raising livestock more sustainable, more efficient or more humane,” writes reporter Carolyn Y. Johnson.

Getting these foods to market is not a matter of technological hurdles, van Eenennaam argues, but perception issues amongst consumers and regulators.

Historically, genetically modified animal products have been a hard sell.

There was the University of Guelph’s “Enviropig” program, where scientists engineered pigs with modified salivary glands to help them digest more phosphorus in their feed. This would have the benefit of reducing the environmental impact of phosphorus that usually goes along with pig waste. Although no studies indicated a food safety risk from Enviropigs, funding for the program ran out in 2012 and the pigs never entered the food system.

The animal that’s come closest to being sold in the United States is AquaBounty Technologies’ AquAdvantage salmon, an Atlantic salmon that can grow year-round, thanks to genes added from the Pacific Chinook salmon and ocean pout. The gene-edited salmon can grow to market weight in 16 to 18 months—rather than the typical three years—reducing the environmental and financial costs of production. In 2015, the AquAdvantage salmon became the first gene-edited animal approved for human consumption by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Yet the animal has never been sold in the United States because of a spending bill rider that bans its import until the FDA mandates labels for the product.

These examples demonstrate the usefulness of gene editing—and the risks of taking on such research.

In the meantime, determined scientists like van Eenennaam are testing new applications for gene-editing (such as producing male cattle that don’t need to be disbudded) as they continue their outreach efforts. Van Eenennaam says the recent article represented her views well, but she was disappointed to see the same article run under different headlines in other publications.

“I felt the article did a fairly good job – what was displeasing was how her fairly balanced reporting got recast by headline writers around the world,” van Eenennaam told Taking Stock.

For example, the original headline was “Gene-edited farm animals are coming. Will we eat them?” but the Australia Financial Review made the products sound risky with the headline “Would you? Could you? Eat gene-edited farm animals.”

With the science showing no reasonable risks from these products, van Eenennaam and many others say the products should be welcome at dinner tables.