For a decade, biotechnology has held the promise of enormous potential for the food ingredients industry. However, the events of recent weeks surrounding the approval of bovine somatotropin have dampened any optimism that realizing this promise will be either quick or easy.
Bovine somatotropin (often referred to as simply bovine growth hormone, or BGH) is a natural protein that increases milk production in dairy cows. Years ago, researchers at Monsanto successfully isolated the genetic material that governs the production of BGH and inserted it into bacteria, yielding a genetically engineered organism that can produce BGH at high efficiency. When treated with BGH, cows produce as much as 15% more milk.
Earlier this year, after an exhaustive review of its safety, the Food and Drug Administration approved the production and sale of BGH (trade name Posilac) by Monsanto. FDA Commissioner David Kessler expressed strong support for the product, stating that the milk from treated cows is virtually indistinguishable from ordinary milk. This opinion has been validated by the National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association.
Unfortunately, activists such as Jeremy Rifkin have again demonstrated their willingness to be unencumbered by facts in their crusade against biotechnology. Publicity campaigns warning against everything from higher antibiotic residues in milk to hormone-contaminated infant formulas have raised fears in the minds of consumers and have led to demonstrations against BGH in many major cities.
The hoopla has had its inevitable effects. Some retailers, while stating they see no safety issues with the product, have bowed to the pressure and requested that their dairy suppliers not use BGH. This reaction, while perhaps inevitable, introduces fundamental concerns to anyone contemplating significant investments in food-related biotechnology.
How will activists react to the use of genetic engineering to produce modified vegetable oils that are healthier than traditional products? How about using recombinant DNA techniques to modify the functionality of food starches, thus improving the viscosity or texture they contribute to food products? And what about introducing genes that enable plants to produce more nutritionally balanced proteins?
The future isn't hopeless. Consumers can and do listen to reason. In fact, recent consumer research sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers of America demonstrated that most consumers are not concerned by the BGH uproar and, indeed, are beginning to question the credibility of activists such as Rifkin.
What they want to know about BGH, and about other biotechnology products, is entirely legitimate. They simply want to assure themselves that the rigor of the government's scrutiny has been adequate to resolve safety questions. When briefed on the facts, they make informed and rational decisions.
This implies a strong need for consumer education on the merits of advancements in biotechnology. A comprehensive and integrated plan should be developed by a coalition of the food ingredient and biotechnology industries, the food manufacturing and retailing industries, responsible consumer organizations and relevant government agencies. Then the plan needs to be implemented in a thoughtful, balanced and timely way.