Last week a team of scientists from South Korea and China announced that they could create genetically modified (GM) pigs with leaner meat and a higher yield of meat than normal pigs. They hope the offspring of these meaty pigs can be approved for human consumption in the near future.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) refer to plants or animals with their genes (genetic materials) being modified for achieving desirable characteristics e.g. enhanced growth, disease resistance or better meat quality. Currently, there are more than 70 types of GM plants (e.g. GM corn, GM soybean, etc.) commercialized in the international market for food use i.e. GM foods. However, no GM animal has been approved for food use yet, because of food safety and environmental impact concerns.
GM Salmon Pending for Market Approval
Although GM pig has received attention recently, the first GM animal pending for food use is likely GM salmon. In United States, an application to commercialize a GM salmon (AquAdvantageÒ Salmon) has been under evaluation by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for more than 15 years. Such a GM salmon can grow all year and reach the full size in about half the time it takes for a normal salmon.
Source: AquaBounty Technologies, 2015
The evaluation by the FDA is expected to close soon. If approved, GM salmon will become the first GM animal in the world for food use. If this is the case, GM salmon produced in overseas may also reach the grocery shelves of HK supermarkets in the near future.
Evaluation of Food Safety and Environmental Impact
Food safety and environmental impact are the greatest concerns for market approval of a GMO for food use. In many countries (like European Union and United States), a scientific risk assessment of GMO and their derived food products is required before any market approval. Any approved GM food must be as “safe” as its respective conventional (non-GM) counterparts (e.g. new GM corn vs. existing conventional corn varieties).
In order to identify and quantify the “modified gene” present in GM foods, DNA based detection method is preferred. The test process involves extracting DNA from a food sample, amplifying this using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique, then determining the presence of “modified gene” originating from a GM organism and the amount of GM materials.
Control of GM Food Sold in Hong Kong
Currently, Hong Kong Government encourages the food trade to implement the “Guidelines on Voluntary Labelling of GM food”. Any food items with 5% or more GM materials in their respective food ingredient(s) are recommended to be labelled as "genetically modified".
Since the Guidelines are not binding, all GM foods (including upcoming GM salmon) imported to Hong Kong are not compulsorily required to have a “genetically modified” declaration on the food packaging. As such, consumers will not be able to differentiate GM food from conventional food.
In my opinion, GM animals, just like the case of GM crops, will gain market approval sooner or later and be sold in the international market in the near future.
It is expected that more and more GM food will be approved for sale and consumers are increasingly concern about whether a food contains GM ingredients or not. Shall the government adopt a more proactive approach to regulate GM food e.g. mandatory labelling of GM products sold in Hong Kong?
Indeed, a few local supermarkets already begin to sell “non-GMO project verified” food. The ultimate goal is to allow the shoppers to make an informed and non-GMO choice.