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FDA probes university's biotech pig sale

Thursday, February 6, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal officials are concerned that pigs that were supposed to be destroyed after a genetic engineering study may have entered the nation's food supply, even though they say there is no health risk.

The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday it is investigating whether scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign violated regulations requiring them to destroy all pigs involved in the research.

The university may have sent 386 of the animals to a livestock dealer who in turn may have sent them to slaughter, the FDA said.

"We do not believe that there is a public health risk," said FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford.

The research involved increasing pigs' natural levels of some growth proteins present in meat anyway, Crawford said.

Moreover, none of the pigs originally genetically manipulated were sold, but rather it was their offspring, which purportedly passed multiple tests verifying the piglets hadn't inherited changed genes.

The FDA is trying to verify the genes were not inherited.

While playing down concern about food safety, the FDA characterized the problem as a serious one of scientists possibly breaking rules necessary to ensure that bioengineering research is done properly.

If the agency determines those rules were indeed broken, it could impose fines or suspend other university research.

The University of Illinois called the FDA's investigation a surprise to researchers who thought they were following federal rules and had openly discussed how they tested and sold the pigs. They characterized it as a misunderstanding.

"Whatever requirements the FDA says are now in place, we'll take it from here and we'll meet them. We've done our best to exceed them," said university spokesman Bill Murphy.

"It's another example where the United States government's system for dealing with this new technology has failed the public," said Carol Tucker Foreman, head of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute.

The Illinois experiment involved giving two genes, a cow gene and a synthetic one, to sows in hopes of increasing the mother's milk production and her piglets' ability to digest milk so they would grow faster, the university's Murphy explained.

Shortly after new piglets are born, the university does extensive testing to see which of litter inherited that ability.

In 2001, researchers told the FDA those pigs that multiple tests showed were not transgenic -- normal pigs that were the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the originally engineered sows -- were being sent to market, while those that did inherit genetic changes were kept for study, Murphy said.

The researchers reported their testing and market practice in scientific journals, he added. The university expressed surprise when FDA inspectors last week objected to the practice.

FDA's Crawford said as a result of the incident, "we will be intensifying these inspections" of biotech researchers.


Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved