Genetically Modified Ice Cream Could Be Coming to Britain
By Geoffrey Lean and Jonathan Owen
July 9, 2006
A fish from the Atlantic depths has lent its survival secret to a food giant searching for improved product 'texture'.
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
GM Protein in Ice Cream
By Prof. Joe Cummins, Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Malcolm Hooper
Genetically modified fish antifreeze protein is potentially able to cause inflammation and should not be approved without comprehensive tests
This report has been submitted to the Food Standards Agency to oppose approval of Unilever’s application on behalf of the Independent Science Panel www.indsp.org.uk
Unilever is seeking approval of a genetically modified (GM) (FAQ on genetic engineering) ice-structuring protein derived from a polar fish, ocean pout, for use in making ice cream smoother and creamier. The GM protein is produced in transgenic bakers’ yeast. Ice-structuring, or antifreeze protein protects the ocean pout in freezing waters by preventing large ice crystals forming; in ice cream and other frozen food it would have the same effect.
Unilever applied to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) UK for approval, and its proposal is now open for public comment . Unilever has sent similar petitions to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to obtain the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status for the food additive  and to Food Standards Australia New Zealand . Both applications have been approved, which is unfortunate.
The transgenic protein produced in yeast was designated ISP Type III HPLC 12 glyco–ISP. The preparation tested by Unilever contained peptides from yeast and sugars along with the recombinant protein. Unilever conducted a subchronic feeding test of the preparation on rats by oral gavage (force feeding) for 3 weeks, as well as a battery of genotoxicity tests that proved to be negative. A series of tests that included those suggested by the World Health Organisation for allergy were carried out, along with tests for reactivity with serum obtained from a few people allergic to fish.
The report stressed that the recombinant protein was identical to protein found in edible fish , although that kind of statement is generally untrue as will be discussed below. There is voluminous literature on antifreeze glycoproteins, particularly those from polar fish. There are four main types of glycoproteins each differing significantly from the others. Type III proteins are around 6500 daltons in size, they form a beta-sandwich structure and are found only in ocean pout . Although the antifreeze protein itself is not immunogenic for the ocean pout, there is nevertheless a strong immune response to the micro ice crystals complex with antifreeze protein circulating in the fish’s blood, indicating that the complex functions as conventional antigens for the ocean pout .
The GM protein from transgenic yeast is the product of a synthetic approximation of the pout antifreeze protein gene. The code sequence was altered to facilitate production in yeast without altering the amino acid sequence. Multiple copies of the synthetic gene were inserted into the yeast chromosomes to boost the synthesis of the protein .
Production of proteins in yeast destined for human consumption or therapy is fraught with the problem of secondary modification of the proteins by glycosylation or other modifications that result in the human (or animal) immune system recognizing the yeast modified proteins as antigens. There has been progress in "humanizing" the glycosylation patterns of proteins produced in yeast [6, 7]. However, there has been no effort to "humanize" the glycosylation pattern of the antifreeze protein produced in the yeast strain used to produce the protein.1
Are the cursory studies on allergenicity carried out by Unilever on the GM protein to be used in ice cream adequate to rule out allergy and other immune reactions in the tens of millions of people that will consume the ice cream?
It is worth pointing out that the transgenic protein is already used in ice cream in the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and that ice cream has not been labeled, so any problems resulting from its use may go unrecognized.
We should recall that the transgenic expression of a bean gene in peas turned it into a strong immunogen, resulting in debilitating even fatal lung inflammation in mice. That response was related to the glycosylation pattern of the transgenic protein [8, 9] ("Transgenic pea that made mice ill", SiS 29).
Unilever does not appear to have carried out the inflammation tests even though there is every indication from the scientific literature that pouter antifreeze protein is immunologically active. There is also the question of latency. Some chronic inflammatory diseases emerge gradually, building up from an initial response that is small and clinically variable or insignificant (asymptomatic) . But there is a potential cascade effect that when triggered, will lead to autoimmune effects that could affect any organ. Without long term testing, we could be letting off an immunological time bomb. Tests for inflammatory effects must be done in both young and older animals with full analysis of inflammatory cytokines, antibodies and related molecules. Tests in young animals are particularly important as ice cream is consumed from the earliest age when there are crucial development processes occurring.
In conclusion, contrary to the claims of Unilever, there is no evidence that the transgenic ice- structuring protein is identical to the protein produced in pouter fish. The transgenic protein appears to have the glycosylation pattern of yeast, making that protein a unique antigen. Even though allergenicity was studied in a cursory way, there is clear precedent for studying inflammation comprehensively in the long term in both young and older animals before exposing the European public to the transgenic ice cream.
References available on request.