By Sean Poulter, Consumer Affairs Correspondent Daily Mail, UK Wednesday, July 17 2002
EATING GM food can change the genetic make-up of your digestive system and could put you at risk of infections that are resistant to antibiotics, experts said today.
A British study has revealed that volunteers who ate one meal containing genetically modified soya had traces of the modified DNA in bacteria in their small intestines.
Scientists now fear that GM foods, which are often modified to be resistant to antibiotics, will leave Britons vulnerable to untreatable diseases. The research contradicts repeated claims by the GM industry that gene transfer from foods to humans is extremely unlikely. It also raises the possibility that millions of people may already have GM bacteria from food they have eaten.
The study, carried out at the University of Newcastle, consisted of feeding seven volunteers GM soya. Researchers found that three of them had evidence of DNA gene transfer in the bacteria that occurs naturally in their digestive systems. This is the first time this transfer has been identified in humans.
*********************************** 'THE STUDY RAISES SERIOUS CONCERNS' ***********************************
Research leader Professor Harry Gilbert played down the dangers, but confirmed that 'surprising' levels of GM DNA transfer were found. He said: "There is some evidence of gene transfer, but it is at an extremely low rate and therefore it probably does not represent a significant risk to human health'. The research report suggested that this transfer may have 'reflected previous exposure of the subjects to genetically modified plants'. But yesterday experts claimed the possibility of eating GM crops containing antibiotic resistance genes raised 'serious concerns'.
Geneticist Dr Michael Antoniou, of Guy's Hospital, London, said the results indicated the need for an extensive GM foods testing programme. He added: "The most significant finding is that there is GM soya DNA in the bacteria at readily detectable levels in the small intestines. 'It was always said by the industry that this could not happen or was extremely unlikely. There is a whole slew of different antibiotic resistant genes that are being used in GM crops in their production in the laboratory. They stay in the final crop.' These genes are often used as a marker to signal that the desired GM change, such as resistance to a particular weed killer, has taken place.
Dr Antoniou added: 'Bacteria in the gut are going to take up genes that will make them resistant to potentially therapeutic antibiotics. 'The possibility is that someone who picked up the antibiotic resistance through food and then fell ill, that a medical antibiotic might not be effective.'
However the Food Standards Agency tried to reassure consumers that GM foods are safe. A spokesman said the findings had been assessed by several Government experts who had ruled that humans were not at risk. In a statement on its website, the agency said the study had concluded it is 'extremely unlikely' that GM genes can end up in the gut of people who eat them.
Friends of the Earth GM expert Adrian Bebb said this response contradicted the opinions of many international scientists. He added: 'The FSA's attitude to the release of this information has been extraordinary. 'It can only fuel concerns that the Government and its agencies only want the public to hear positive news about GM. This is the first time a change to bacteria in the gut has been identified in humans. It is enormously significant. This is something the GM industry said could not happen. Yet in the first experiment looking at just seven people, there it is. The suggestion that the GM DNA could already have been in the bodies of the participants raises important questions. Either it got into the gut many years ago and has been passed down or people are eating GM soya in their diet on a daily basis. Whatever the reason, it would seem millions of people could have GM DNA from this soya in their bodies'.