Will genetically "edited" food be regulated? The case of the mushroom

April 19, 2016

If you snip a bit of DNA from a vegetable, but do not add any new genes, does that vegetable qualify as a genetically modified organism, or GMO?

It's a hot question for government regulators, and it's no longer theoretical, an article explains, as a researcher at Penn State University, has used a popular gene editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9 to snip out a tiny piece of DNA from one particular gene in a white button mushroom. This disables the gene, which in turn reduces the mushroom's production of an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. As a result, the mushroom does not turn brown as quickly.

This is similar to the work other scientists have done, that has helped them created non-browning versions of apples and potatoes. However, those crops were considered GMOs because scientists inserted new, slightly altered genes into those plants in order to "silence" the natural gene.

Last fall, Yinong Yang, the Penn State University researcher, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), asking if his mushroom would be subject to regulation by the USDA. This week, the USDA sent its answer: No.

The article states that this is the first time the USDA has looked at a crop that has been edited using the CRISPR technique, and it is attracting a lot of attention, because it could be the first of many.

It does not mean, however, that the mushroom — or other foods — would necessarily avoid all government scrutiny. Companies that are bringing GMOs to market have, until now, submitted those products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for review.

"Anything for food or feed consumption, usually the company submits the data to FDA for approval," Yang explained in the article. But he also noted that "this process is voluntary, not mandatory."

Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology program coordinator at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in the article that the case of the mushroom illustrates the holes in the government's current regulatory process. "The regulatory system is not science-based, but trigger-based," he said.

The USDA only regulates crops where there is a risk that the new variety could become a weed or a "pest" to other plants, he continued. "You could have a situation where a crop may actually have some risk, but doesn't get regulated by USDA, and you could have things that don't have any risk, but which are regulated," because they incorporate genes, for instance, from a plant virus.

The White House recently announced a review of the entire regulatory framework for genetically modified crops and the National Academy of Sciences held a meeting earlier this week to look at new biotechnologies and ways to do this.

Douglas Gurian-Sherman, with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that has campaigned against genetically engineered crops, says the lack of formal regulatory review of gene-edited crops is disturbing. For one thing, it makes it difficult to know exactly what's been done to the crop. "The company can just keep its data to itself," he said.

Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, he added, can create genetic alterations that are not fully predictable. "Because of the newness of the technology, we think that it should be regulated as a technology," and all crops created by gene editing tools like CRISPR should require government approval.

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Category: Food Safety