NEW YORK (AP) – US regulators have approved a genetically modified pig for food and medical products, making it the second animal to receive the green light for human consumption. But the company behind it says there are no plans to sell it for meat.
The pig has been genetically engineered to eliminate the presence of alpha gall, a type of sugar found in many mammals. The sugar gets into many products – including medicines, cosmetics and food – and can cause allergic reactions in some people.
The main goal of the company behind the pig, United Therapeutics Corp., is to develop medical products, such as blood thinners, that won’t cause such reactions, spokesman Dewey Steadman said. Ultimately, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based company hopes to develop a way in which the pig’s organs can be transplanted into humans.
The pig, called GalSafe, also has commercial potential as a food, but Steadman said the company does not know when it can contract with a meat producer to process and sell it. He noted that the meat allergy the pigs are addressing, called alpha-gal syndrome, is not yet considered a major problem.
“It is known, but it is not well known,” said Steadman.
Health researchers don’t quite understand how the allergy develops, but it has been linked bites from certain ticks. There were 24 reported cases in 2009, but more recent estimates are more than 5,000 cases, according to one report by a working group for the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Symptoms include hives, itching, cramps and vomiting. Unlike other food allergies, alpha-gal reactions usually occur several hours after eating beef, pork, or lamb, making it difficult to diagnose.
Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety, noted that meat from genetically modified pigs was not tested in people with allergies.
“You offer it as something they can eat without knowing if it addresses their allergies,” Hanson said.
The FDA said it has not evaluated allergy-specific food safety as the company’s filing does not include data on the occurrence of such reactions.
The Center for Food Safety has sued the FDA over the first genetically modified animal approved by the agency for human food – salmon developed to grow faster. The group said it is reviewing the agency’s decision on the GalSafe pig posted Monday.
Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the FDA approval of the GalSafe pig, announced on Monday, is also worrying because it was not given a chance for public comment.
“No one has been canceled, and all of a sudden there is an approved animal,” he said.
The company did not reveal exactly how it changed the animal’s DNA. Jaffe said the pig was produced by turning off one gene responsible for producing the sugar and adding another that serves as a marker for the silenced gene.
Jaffe said he is not aware of any rules on how pork from GM pigs should be labeled for sale in supermarkets. A representative for the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat labeling, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Steadman said United Therapeutics’ pigs would be more difficult to produce than conventional finishers due to requirements governing how they should be reared and slaughtered. He said there are about 25 GalSafe pigs on an Iowa farm.
In the long run, he said the goal is to combine the genetic modification with multiple other changes to make their organs acceptable for human transplants. For years, researchers have been exploring the idea of transplanting pig organs as a way to make up for shortages of donated organs.
While there are no plans yet to sell meat from GalSafe pigs, the genetically modified salmon could soon be available in the US. AquaBounty, the company that produces the fish, says it determines the best time to harvest the salmon, which grows in indoor tanks at a plant in Indiana.
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