ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Agricultural Biotechnology ResearchAdvisory Committee (ABRAC) of the U.S. Department ofAgriculture confronted difficult ethical issues last week, finallyconcluding that political and religious concerns are likely tolead to labeling requirements for genetically engineered food.

Much of the discussion was guided by the Report of theCommittee on the Ethics of Genetic Modification and Food Useby the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. TheBritish committee surveyed attitudes toward transgenic foodsamong the major religions and found that there were somedifferences. To Moslems, for example, a transgene retains itsoriginal identity, while Jews see the transgene adopting thecharacter of the new host. The other religions fall in the middle,with Hindus and Sikhs leaning toward the Moslem view andChristians closer to the Jewish view.

But what if the modified genes do not come directly fromanother source? ABRAC also explored the British committee'sdiscussion of the "dilution effect." It "results in transgeneslosing their original 'status' in the sense that they aremanufactured in in vitro systems rather than derived directlyfrom a donor organism," the British committee wrote.

The committee recommended further debate, "particularlywithin the religious communities, since it might lead to changesin the attitudes recorded in our report."

Until that happens, "we need to provide the social conditionsunder which the greatest amount of liberty is possible," said A.David Kline, chairman of ABRAC. Current opposition totransgenes in food, he said, was a strong argument for labeling.

Public concern over what goes into food is largely responsiblefor the debate over labeling. "Responses to food biotechnologyare part and parcel of the sea change of attitudes toward foodin general," said W. Steven Burke, vice president of corporateaffairs at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. "There is farmore attention to nutrition, to the types of food we eat, to theramifications of food than ever in the past. Food biotechnologyis suffering from the same treatment as any way to doodlewith our food. Irradiation is one such example which shouldnot feel singled out," he said.

"The reason we sometimes do not respond lucidly are notunrelated to the reasons we do not offer lucid responses topolitics, sex and religion," he added.

-- David Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.