Washington Insider-- Wednesday

The Mystery of Genetic Modification

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Most USDA Food Recalls Due to Undeclared Allergens: Bloomberg BNA

Undeclared allergens such as nuts or milk not listed properly on a product's label are now the leading cause of recalls for USDA-inspected food products, according to a Bloomberg BNA analysis.

Previously, pathogens like listeria and salmonella triggered most recalls for foods regulated by USDA, which inspects meat, egg and poultry products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all other foods.

The number of USDA recalls for undeclared allergens increased from nine in 2006 to 58 in 2015. Almost 22 million pounds of food products have been recalled due to undeclared allergens since 2006. Meanwhile, foodborne pathogen recalls decreased in the past decade from a high of 34 recalls in 2007 for E. coli, listeria and salmonella combined to a low of 16 recalls for those pathogens in 2014.

The rise in undeclared allergen recalls is largely due to ingredients of USDA-inspected products being manufactured off-site by different suppliers, according to USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety Al Almanza. "Facilities used to blend products in-house, but that's simply not the case anymore," he said.

For example, ConAgra Foods Inc. recalled more than 84,000 pounds of frozen dinners in May 2016 after a sauce mix-up. A mislabeled shipment of Worcestershire sauce was mistakenly used in the dinners instead of the correct ingredient, Rochester sauce. The Worcestershire sauce contained anchovies, while the Rochester sauce did not. Because the label did not specify that fish was an ingredient, the dinners were recalled for containing an undeclared allergen.

"Sometimes these spice manufacturers aren't paying as close attention to these products," Almanza observed. "If the suppliers of these substances, these ingredients, aren't paying attention to what undeclared allergens are, the liability will fall on the company that we regulate."

Manufacturers must not only list the ingredients of a food, but to disclose any sub-ingredients of the main components, Almanza said. A frozen pasta dinner would list pasta as an ingredient on the label, but it would also have to list any ingredients in the pasta, such as eggs and flour.

The implementation of a "test-and-hold" policy helped reduce the number of recalls, particularly for listeria contamination, Almanza noted. Productions facilities hold products until tests come back negative for pathogens, after which the food is sent to retailers.

USDA: US Ethanol Export Volume Held Steady in 2015

U.S. ethanol exports were at 836 million gallons in 2015, unchanged from 2014 and the second highest volume on record, according to a report from USDA's Foreign Ag Service (FAS).

Outside of a two-year period in 2012 and 2013, U.S. ethanol exports have risen annually since 2009, reaching a record 1.2 billion gallons in 2011.

While volumes held steady, FAS noted, "The value of U.S. ethanol exports was $1.8 billion in 2015, down 14% from $2 billion in 2014, due to lower prices," FAS said. "Over the past two years, lower ethanol prices and more diverse export destinations helped sustain higher export volumes despite collapsing oil prices and a stronger US dollar. The advantage of increased market diversity was demonstrated in 2015 when record sales to China, Korea and India more than offset a sales downturn to Canada, the United States' top market."

The U.S. continued to hold a 50% share in global non-beverage ethanol exports in 2015, FAS noted. "The United States' export reliance (the percent of production exported) and the portion of the US corn crop supporting ethanol exports both remained largely unchanged over the past two years."

Washington Insider: The Mystery of Genetic Modification

The Wall Street Journal has been none too happy with the GMO label debate, often suggesting that the modification process itself is not a characteristic that deserves to be labeled. Recently, it followed up on that argument with an article suggesting the "natural horizontal gene transfer" is common, information that "could undermine arguments against genetically modified foods."

Scientists have now discovered a way by which genes from one species "can jump directly into another species," the Journal says, and calls that "nature's way of creating genetically modified organisms."

The finding is relevant to the debate over genetically modified food labels, the Journal says. Some opponents frequently maintain that an interspecies gene transfer done in a laboratory such as the insertion of a bacterial gene into corn to make it insect-resistant, for example, "would never occur naturally and is therefore unethical and potentially unsafe."

It now is pointing to a new study, published recently in in the journal PLOS Genetics, that undermines such an argument. "You realize that nature is creating genetically modified organisms all the time," said Salvador Herrero, a geneticist at the University of Valencia, Spain, and co-author of the study. "It's not so weird to transfer genes from one organism to another."

Genes are typically passed on within the same species, from parents to young, a process known as vertical gene transfer. But in recent years, scientists have pinpointed many instances of horizontal gene transfer, which involves genes moving from one species into an entirely unrelated species that happens to live in the same environment.

For example, a gene from a species of bacteria has been discovered in the genome of the coffee berry borer beetle, where it enables the beetle to feed exclusively on coffee beans. It is through horizontal gene transfer that bacteria typically develop antibiotic resistance.

A few months ago, a team of UK researchers concluded that the "jumping gene" method enabled humans to acquire more than 145 foreign genes from bacteria, viruses and fungi over the course of our evolution.

Still, it has been a mystery regarding how this can happen. In the latest study, researchers suggest a possible route whereby the genes of parasitic wasps invade the genomes of butterflies and moths. "When braconid wasps lay their eggs inside caterpillars, they also inject a virus from their bodies to incapacitate the caterpillar's natural immune response. This allows the wasp larvae to feed on the caterpillar unhindered. In the process, genes that belong to the wasp and are harbored by the virus also end up in the caterpillar host."

The larvae thrive but the caterpillar dies. In this scenario, the inserted wasp genes go nowhere. But sometimes, the authors say, "the parasitic wasp may attack a non-host caterpillar." Although its eggs won't survive in this creature's body, the inserted wasp genes integrate with the caterpillar's DNA and are transmitted to future generations of butterfly progeny. Thus, the presence of wasp genes in butterflies.

Scientists know the integration happens because sequences of the wasp's DNA have been found in the caterpillar genome. But the precise mechanism is still uncertain.

In most documented examples of horizontal gene transfer "we know that a gene doesn't belong," said Louise Johnson, evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, who wasn't involved in the research. "This is a good study because it tells us exactly how the gene transfer occurs."

The authors say they discovered wasp genes in two species of butterflies, including the familiar orange-black-and-white Monarch butterfly common in North America, and in three species of moth, including the silkworm.

Genes typically persist if they provide some benefit, scientists say. According to the PLOS study, two of the genes acquired from wasps produce proteins that protect caterpillars against a foe known as the bracovirus. They do so by hindering the bracovirus's ability to infect the caterpillar and by interfering with the virus's ability to replicate.

So, what does this mean? Certainly, the process of genetic modification has been important in the development—and improvement—of food and fiber products for many, many generations and the rules that govern such processes are becoming increasingly familiar to scientists. And, it means the efforts by activists to find a simple, perhaps damning label that will protect consumers from both real and imaginary threats seems increasingly unlikely. What will change that? Possibly, a miracle gene that provides a real, otherwise unavailable benefit for a lot of consumers.

Or, the dumbed-down regulatory process that labels everything without meaning anything much could be seen as "not worth the trouble." Certainly, the labels activists thought would allow them to elevate their undocumented "concerns" to the point where consumers would reject the technology seem to be falling far short.

So, now it is USDA's chance to design labels that are fair and informative—a challenge the agency failed on the Country of Origin labels at significant cost to the industry. We now will see how well a similar effort works for GMO technologies, Washington Insider believes.

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