The GM 99: Genetically modified ice cream could be coming to Britain
A fish from the Atlantic depths has lent its survival secret to a food giant searching for improved product 'texture'. By Geoffrey Lean and Jonathan Owen
Sunday 09 July 2006
New designer ice cream, made possible by genetic modification, threatens to set off a "time bomb" in the health of British children, scientists are warning. The scientists, from Britain and Canada, have alerted an official committee which this month will rule on the safety of the ice cream, being sold increasingly worldwide by the food giant Unilever. It contains an artificial protein copied, through a GM process, from a fish living in the frigid waters of the bottom of the North-west Atlantic.
An "anti-freeze" protein allows the fish - the ocean pout - to survive extreme cold. Unilever, the world's biggest ice cream maker, says using its artificial equivalent allows it "to produce products with more intense flavour delivery, a wider range of novel textures and more intricate shapes".
Unilever also says it can improve the "healthiness" of the ice cream by cutting its fat and sugar content - a claim that particularly angers its critics.
The scientists - Professor Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medical Chemistry at Sunderland University, Professor Joe Cummins, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, and geneticist Dr Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society - retort that it risks "letting off an immunological time bomb".
The company, which has been making ice cream for more than 70 years under such brands as Wall's, Magnum and Carte d'Or, and now owns Ben and Jerry's, has sold it with the protein in the United States for three years, and has approval to do so in Chile, Indonesia, Mexico and the Philippines.
It has also had the go-ahead in Australia and New Zealand despite objections by the health departments of the states of Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.
Now it has applied to the Food Standards Agency to be allowed to use it in "edible ices" sold in Britain, including sorbets, water ice, fruit ice, frozen desserts, iced smoothies - and ice cream. The agency's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes is due to consider the plea at its next meeting, on 20 July.
If the committee gives it the green light, as is likely, it will then have to go to the European Union for approval, a lengthy process but one also expected to give it the go-ahead. The new products could go on sale in Britain in two years' time.
The key step in making the ice cream is getting hold of the ocean pout's secret, called an ice-structuring protein because rather than preventing freezing altogether, it lowers the temperature at which ice crystals grow, and changes their shape and structure so that they do less damage to living tissues.
In theory, Unilever could go out and catch loads of the fish - an eel-like species that lives on the ocean floor - extract the protein and add it to the ice cream like any other ingredient. But this would be expensive and, as the company, which has a good record in combating overfishing, points out, would cut the population of the fish, whose stocks are already declining.
So it has resorted to a GM process already widely used to produce vitamins and enzymes for food, including vegetarian cheese. A synthetic gene for the protein is added by genetic modification to bakers' yeast, which is fermented to manufacture more. The protein is then extracted so that the final product does not contain any modified yeast cells. This has led to a semantic battle over whether the final product is "GM ice cream". Unilever says that it is not; the scientists maintain it is. "This is about as genetically modified a product as you can get," says Professor Cummins.
The more important debate is whether the end result is safe, particularly for children. Unilever accepts that the main danger is that people may prove allergic to the protein. But it points out that people have eaten its natural form in ocean pout for decades, and says that the artificial version is identical. It adds that extensive tests on the artificial protein for allergic effects gave it the all clear.
Unexpectedly perhaps, many of the most prominent anti-GM pressure groups, including Friends of the Earth, GM Freeze, and Genewatch, say, in effect, that they are not too bothered, and that it is well down their priority list. But the scientists, who have a record of GM scepticism, are deeply disturbed, as is The Soil Association.
The scientists insist that the protein is changed in the processing, and may pose a danger. Professor Hooper told The Independent on Sunday yesterday: "This is a novel protein manufactured by genetically modified organisms and its characteristics have never been fully evaluated. It needs to be checked out before it is widely introduced into the human diet."
He and his colleagues also dispute the adequacy of Unilever's safety checks, not least because it checked the protein against the blood of people allergic to cod, not the pout fish,
The Soil Association calls the ice cream "a frivolous application of a dangerous and unwanted technology". It adds: "Just because there won't be any traces of the GM material in the ice cream does not mean that the product is safe. It certainly should not be marketed as a 'healthier alternative' simply on the grounds that it is low fat."
The Soil Association says research shows that "genetic engineering produces a range of unpredictable biological side-effects". This includes, it is believed, "new toxins and allergens even if the original GM material is absent".
It points to a GM food supplement, L-tryptophan, which "killed over 37 people and disabled over 1,500 others" in the US in 1989 even though it also "did not contain any GM material in the final product".
Unilever responded yesterday: "This is an exciting new technology that has potential benefits for ice cream, including the possibility of increased fruit content and lower fat content. The process itself is widely used within the food industry, but the Food Standards Agency process is designed to solicit opinion from others and we would not want to influence that process whilst it is still running its course."
The row comes as the biotech industry is attempting a comeback with the help of the European Commission. Modified products were swept from the shelves in the face of public refusal to buy them, and the EU instituted a six-year moratorium on approving new ones.
But this came to an end two years ago and biotech firms have jumped in. Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth says: "Their latest tactic is to swamp committees with dozens of applications for new GM foods. It is hard to imagine that the scientists working for these committees will be able to pay as much attention to their safety as they merit."
EU governments are deadlocked on the applications but, under the rules, the pro-GM European Commission then nods them through. Seven different types of GM maize have been approved for food in the past two years: applications for GM rice, sugar beet and potato are in the pipeline. But there is no sign of them appearing on British supermarket shelves - because most still refuse to buy GM food.
Additional research by Julia Belgutay
How the flood of GM goods was driven off the shelves
Seven short years ago, when The Independent on Sunday began its campaign on GM foods and crops, 60 per cent of the products on our supermarket shelves contained modified ingredients.
Now only two GM products are left on sale: Schwartz's Bacon Flavour Bits Salad Topping, and Betty Crocker Bac-Os - neither exactly household names.
Then, too, widespread cultivation of GM crops throughout Britain was thought to be only a year away. No less than 53 of them were confidently awaiting approval. Now not a single GM plant is growing anywhere in any British field, and no one expects any to be sown any time in the foreseeable future.
At the time ours appeared a hopeless cause. The giant biotech companies seemed unstoppable: Monsanto, which led their charge, was poised to make a merger that would have turned it into the world's largest corporation. It had the full backing of the Government, fired by the messianistic determination of Tony Blair to make the country "the European hub" of biotechnology. Both the US administration and the British scientific establishment were urging him on.
The Prime Minister privately dismissed public opposition as "a flash in the pan", and so it appeared. Ranged against the Goliaths of the boardrooms and the cabinet rooms were a motley band of Davids, ranging from Prince Charles to pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.
But we reckoned without the most powerful force of all, the superwomen (and supermen) of the shopping aisles who, informed of the presence of GM products in their foods and the arguments for and against, simply refused to buy them. Thus the public achieved what parliament has repeatedly failed to do - stopping one of Tony Blair's dodgier crusades in its tracks.
We started our campaign in February 1999 by calling for a pause in the rush to a GM future, demanding a three-year moratorium in cultivating modified crops while more research was carried out. By the end of the year we had our wish: Michael Meacher, the then Environment minister, skilfully persuaded the biotech industry to agree to a three-year halt, pending official field trials.
The trials, in true Whitehall fashion, were designed to clear the crops. Everyone knew that the main danger that the crops posed was that they would cross-pollinate with nearby plants, creating superweeds, So the tests avoided this issue altogether, focusing on the relatively minor issue of the effects of weedkiller on them.
Everyone expected this jiggery-pokery to succeed - including the environmental campaigners who repeatedly pulled up the GM crops, in an attempt to scupper the trails (after one protest Lord Melchett, the then head of Greenpeace, was arrested with 20 supporters - only to be acquitted by a jury). But when the results were published modified crops were still generally found to be more damaging to wildlife than conventional ones, even on these limited grounds.
Even worse for Monsanto and Mr Blair, public opinion had by then decisively turned against GM. Both ministers and the industry had fondly believed that the pause would allow the controversy to die down, but they were sorely disappointed.
By the time the tests ended, 84 per cent of Britain's had decided they would not touch the stuff. The supermarket chains fell over themselves to clear it from their shelves - and the big food manufacturers rushed to abjure its use.
Monsanto closed its seed cereal business in Britain and Europe, and the industry withdrew the last of the 53 applications it had once assumed would be granted. Anyone for Betty Crocker Bac-Os?
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