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[SANET-MG] GM ice cream may be coming to Britain
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
searching for improved product 'texture'.
By Geoffrey Lean and Jonathan Owen
Published: 09 July 2006
New designer ice cream, made possible by genetic modification,
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,
increasingly worldwide by the food giant Unilever. It contains an
protein copied, through a GM process, from a fish living in the frigid
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
artificial equivalent allows it "to produce products with more intense
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
The scientists - Professor Malcolm Hooper, Emeritus Professor of Medical
Chemistry at Sunderland University, Professor Joe Cummins, Emeritus
Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, and geneticist Dr
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
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
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,
desserts, iced smoothies - and ice cream. The agency's Advisory
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
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
changes their shape and structure so that they do less damage to living
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
ice cream like any other ingredient. But this would be expensive and,
company, which has a good record in combating overfishing, points out,
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
protein is added by genetic modification to bakers' yeast, which is
to manufacture more. The protein is then extracted so that the final
does not contain any modified yeast cells. This has led to a semantic
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
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
allergic to the protein. But it points out that people have eaten its
form in ocean pout for decades, and says that the artificial version is
identical. It adds that extensive tests on the artificial protein for
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
they are not too bothered, and that it is well down their priority
the scientists, who have a record of GM scepticism, are deeply
is The Soil Association.
The scientists insist that the protein is changed in the processing,
pose a danger. Professor Hooper told The Independent on Sunday yesterday:
"This is a novel protein manufactured by genetically modified organisms
characteristics have never been fully evaluated. It needs to be checked
before it is widely introduced into the human diet."
He and his colleagues also dispute the adequacy of Unilever's safety
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
traces of the GM material in the ice cream does not mean that the
safe. It certainly should not be marketed as a 'healthier alternative'
the grounds that it is low fat."
The Soil Association says research shows that "genetic engineering
a range of unpredictable biological side-effects". This includes, it is
believed, "new toxins and allergens even if the original GM material is
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
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
content and lower fat content. The process itself is widely used within
food industry, but the Food Standards Agency process is designed to
opinion from others and we would not want to influence that process
is still running its course."
The row comes as the biotech industry is attempting a comeback with the
of the European Commission. Modified products were swept from the
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
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,
pro-GM European Commission then nods them through. Seven different
GM maize have been approved for food in the past two years:
GM rice, sugar beet and potato are in the pipeline. But there is no
them appearing on British supermarket shelves - because most still
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
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
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
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
administration and the British scientific establishment were urging him on.
The Prime Minister privately dismissed public opposition as "a flash in
pan", and so it appeared. Ranged against the Goliaths of the boardrooms
the cabinet rooms were a motley band of Davids, ranging from Prince
pressure groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil
But we reckoned without the most powerful force of all, the superwomen
supermen) of the shopping aisles who, informed of the presence of GM
in their foods and the arguments for and against, simply refused to buy
them. Thus the public achieved what parliament has repeatedly failed to
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
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
wish: Michael Meacher, the then Environment minister, skilfully
biotech industry to agree to a three-year halt, pending official field
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
cross-pollinate with nearby plants, creating superweeds, So the tests
this issue altogether, focusing on the relatively minor issue of the
weedkiller on them.
Everyone expected this jiggery-pokery to succeed - including the
environmental campaigners who repeatedly pulled up the GM crops, in an
scupper the trails (after one protest Lord Melchett, the then head of
was arrested with 20 supporters - only to be acquitted by a jury). But
the results were published modified crops were still generally found to
damaging to wildlife than conventional ones, even on these limited grounds.
Even worse for Monsanto and Mr Blair, public opinion had by then
turned against GM. Both ministers and the industry had fondly believed
the pause would allow the controversy to die down, but they were sorely
By the time the tests ended, 84 per cent of Britain's had decided they
not touch the stuff. The supermarket chains fell over themselves to
from their shelves - and the big food manufacturers rushed to abjure
Monsanto closed its seed cereal business in Britain and Europe, and the
industry withdrew the last of the 53 applications it had once assumed
granted. Anyone for Betty Crocker Bac-Os?
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