The world of food and drug regulation was rocked earlier this month by the news of a change in leadership at the Food and Drug Administration. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned and will step down in early April. His temporary replacement is Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute.

As the news filtered out, stocks went up and down, consumer advocacy groups looked back on Gottlieb’s legacy and commentators worried about the future of the agency.

Most of the attention surrounding Gottlieb’s departure has focused on the consequences of the resignation for the vaping and tobacco industries. But the impact of changes in FDA leadership extends well beyond that. FDA-regulated products make up 20 percent of consumer spending in the U.S. In the realm of food alone, FDA regulates 75 percent of our food supply.

As a professor who studies FDA and health law at Saint Louis University, I have been working with the Center for Health Law Studies to monitor changes in FDA regulations and policies. Most recently I’ve been tracking progress on the FDA’s regulation of genetically modified food and think I can explain what consumers can expect from the agency after Gottlieb departs.

How the FDA deals with GM plants and animals

Genetically modified plants entered the U.S. market in the 1990s. Since then, the official FDA position has been that food derived from genetically modified plants and animals is not different “from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way.” This includes considerations regarding safety and long-time effects associated with its consumption.

Many people regard genetically modified food as a means to feed more people at a lower cost. However, recent studies suggest that these promises remain unfulfilled since genetically engineered food first became available in the 1990s.

Even though scientists have been able to alter the genome of animals for decades, it was not until 2008 that the FDA issued guidance on genetically modified animals. Since then, the agency has become much more active in this area. In 2017, months before Gottlieb became commissioner, the FDA issued further guidance on the use of emerging technologies, like CRISPR, that allow scientists to alter animal genomes.

As with plants, the FDA considers genetically engineered animals safe for human consumption. The agency reviews these types of products as new animal drug applications.

In 2015, two years before Gottlieb began his tenure, the FDA favorably reviewed an application involving AquAdvantage salmon. Although AquAdvantage salmon was being produced in Canada in 2016, Congress directed FDA to restrict importation of AquAdvantage salmon into the United States. This genetically modified fish incorporates a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon and links it to a genetic switch, or promoter. The promoter taken from an eel-like fish called ocean pout keeps the growth hormone gene in the “on” position, allowing it to grow significantly faster than comparable Atlantic salmon.  Read the article.

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