Green pork, anyone?
A group of 21 hogs living at a Canadian university have been genetically engineered so their manure will be less polluting even if it’s just as smelly as a conventional pig’s.
Scientists at the University of Guelph envision these Enviropigs’ pork someday being marketed as good for the environment.
No one has eaten it yet, but the scientists say the pork should taste like a conventional Yorkshire’s. They “look like regular pigs, they act like other pigs, and they regrettably smell like other pigs,” said Cecil Forsberg, one of the Guelph scientists.
But for now, the pigs can’t leave the lab, although the Food and Drug Administration is considering an application from the university to allow the pork to go to market.
The FDA recently proposed guidelines for regulating genetically engineered animals such as the Enviropigs, but consumer activists say the rules are inadequate: The guidelines won’t require developers to disclose key details, such as what genes have been used to give the animals’ their distinctive traits, and food from the animals won’t have to be labeled.
Even if the FDA approves the Enviropigs or other biotech animals, it’s unclear whether farmers and processors will consider commercializing them.
There’s no evidence consumers are clamoring for high-tech foods.
“We more often hear the cries for something that is closer back to nature,” said Scott Eilert, vice president for research and development at Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., one of the largest U.S. meatpackers.
Eilert didn’t rule out ever marketing biotech meat, but he said it was “hard for me to imagine today.” He spoke at a recent forum on the issue sponsored by the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest and a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress.
The dairy industry would be concerned about both domestic and international acceptance of milk from transgenic cattle.
About 10 percent of U.S. milk production is exported, and domestically, “there’s some consumer skepticism about the appropriateness of having food from transgenic animals,” said Jamie Jonker, director of regulatory affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation.
As for the pork industry, there’s little interest in genetically engineered hogs, said Mark Bogges, who follows swine research for the National Pork Board.
“Nobody wants that fight right now,” he said.
Greg Jaffe, who follows biotechnology issues for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says consumers could warm up to the idea of biotech meat and milk, but they’ll have to see the benefits and have confidence in government regulators.
He also said data about the animals should be made public while they are still under review at the FDA. That way, the public can “chime in to the process before it’s a fait accompli,” he said.
The Canadian scientists think their Enviropigs would fit the bill of providing a public benefit.
The pigs produce an enzyme in their saliva that can digest the phosphorus in their feed. That’s good for the environment because it means less phosphorus winds up in the manure and potentially foul rivers and streams.
The pigs also could cost slightly less to feed because they don’t need a phosphorus supplement.
The scientists say they’ll make all the data available to the public once the FDA finishes its review and will insist that the pigs’ pork carry special labels.
Still, they know the pigs could be a tough sell, even if the pork is marketed as environmentally friendly. That just isn’t considered something that consumers want.
“There’s no profit stream for producing our animals,” said John Phillips, another of the researchers. “Nobody makes money by protecting the environment.”
The FDA has given no timetable for finalizing its guidelines. So the rules — and the Enviropigs — may well greet the new Obama administration.
Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines Register. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Biotech animals in development
• Livestock resistant to diseases, such as cattle immune to mad cow.
• Pigs with omega-3 fatty acids that are good for human nutrition.
• Animals whose tissues and organs could be transplanted into humans.
• Hypoallergenic pets.