Just as we predicted back in December, foods created with CRISPR technology (short for clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) are entering the food supply beyond the reach of federal regulators. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would not regulate white button mushrooms that scientists altered to stop them from browning. The agency’s confirmation that it is unable to regulate CRISPR-modified foods confirms that the current statutory scheme for genetically modified foods is not sufficient.
In the simplest terms, genetically modified plants are created when scientists add foreign DNA (usually DNA from bacteria) to a plant to give it a designated trait, like resistance to a virus or to a pesticide. CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”), a newer technology, does not rely on foreign DNA. Instead of combining genetic material from different species, scientists edit the organism’s existing genetic code to achieve desired characteristics.
That difference in technique translates to a significant legal loophole. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) works to protect U.S. agriculture from pests and diseases. Under the Plant Protection Act, APHIS has the authority to regulate genetically modified plants that are or could be pests. When plants are created with CRISPR, the lack of foreign DNA takes away USDA’s authority to regulate, as the agency points out in a letter to the mushroom’s inventor.
The USDA’s announcement is significant, but not because of the mushroom itself. There’s no evidence to suggest that the CRISPR mushrooms pose a threat to consumers. In fact, by increasing the time before these mushrooms turn brown, they will have a longer shelf life and may ultimately reduce food waste. Nonetheless, USDA’s announcement confirms that as genetic technology moves away from the methods of the past, regulators will be unable to oversee the safety of genetically engineered plants and animals that may be less benign.
This potentially unregulated future concerns those of us who recognize the benefits of health and safety regulations. But this is the rare instance in which corporate stakeholders may want the feds to take a more aggressive stance on regulation, as well.
Polls consistently show that Americans are suspicious of genetically modified foods. Today, food makers are able to assuage fears by pointing to federal approvals. For example, in their online statements regarding genetically modified ingredients, General Mills, Pepsi, and Kraft Foods state that FDA and USDA have deemed these foods safe for humans.
Once agencies lose the authority to perform safety evaluations, food companies won’t be able to trumpet this reasoning. Consumers will be forced to accept the corporations’ claims that these ingredients are safe. And although nothing yet indicates that food ingredients modified through CRISPR pose a threat to human health, consumers have plenty of good reasons to be mistrustful of manufacturers’ safety claims.
What now? The debate has already begun about the best way to reorganize the regulatory system to accommodate emerging technologies. Without getting to the merits of that issue, it’s safe to say that the relevant agencies have already fallen behind. They must take decisive action and they must do it quickly. Perhaps a unique coalition of advocates could help build that momentum.