WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday researchers improperly disposed of bioengineered pigs and they might have entered the food supply.
In an investigation last week, the FDA found researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, sold the offspring of genetically modified pigs to a dealer, said Dr. Lester Crawford, deputy commissioner of the FDA, in a teleconference. Whether the dealer offered the pigs for slaughter has yet to be determined, Crawford said, and the FDA could not confirm whether meat from the pigs entered the food supply.
"Based on present information, this incident poses no public health risk," Crawford said. Nevertheless, he added, the University of Illinois breached FDA requirements and action will be taken based on the results of an ongoing investigation.
According to FDA regulations, the sows should not be used "under any circumstances for human food," Crawford said. The pigs should have been destroyed by incineration or rendering, he added.
Although the FDA could not discuss the specific genes involved in the bioengineering project, Crawford did comment that they "cause proteins to be elaborated in the milk" to increase growth of offspring. He also noted the genes express proteins that are natural and "present at roughly the same concentration in meat of various sorts in the natural state. So we do not believe there is a public health risk because of that determination."
The FDA said the proteins resulting from the genetic tweaking should have been digested by the pig offspring.
"There is no reason there would be a residue in the meat," Crawford said. However, the genetic mutation might have been passed on to the offspring from the engineered sows. "That obviously is what we're concerned about," he added.
Sale of the sows' offspring began in early 2001, he said, and ended Jan. 15 of this year. A total of 386 were sold to a dealer.
As a penalty, the FDA could fine the researchers, suspend other research being done by the researchers involved or suspend other studies at the university.
Ray Wright, professor of animal sciences at Washington State University in Pullman, said his initial reaction is that the risk to human health is low-to-nonexistent if the protein is naturally found in the animal. However, without more detailed information about the specific genes involved, he said it would be difficult to confirm this.
Gary Anderson, professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis, said, "It's unfortunate that this happens. It's generally by mistake." He added that regulations "are in place not necessarily because there's a presumed health problem," Anderson said, adding transgenic foods have already entered the food supply.
"It's safe to say it's virtually impossible for a person to not eat transgenic products today," Anderson said. "Most of genetically modified foods on the market are plant derived but this does not rule out the future possibility for bioengineered animal products as well. We just have to proceed cautiously."