Two kinds of genetically modified pigs are on their way to becoming pork on our dinner plates. If they do, they'll be some of the very first genetically modified animals to enter our food system, along with genetically modified salmon that is also trying to gain regulatory approval.

But consumers are wary and lack confidence in governments' readiness to regulate this new class of food product, researchers and activists say.

The genetically modified pigs under development are designed to improve pork production in different ways:

  • Bruce Whitelaw and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh are developing a pig resistant to African swine fever, a devastating disease with no vaccine or cure that has led to hundreds of pigs being slaughtered in Europe to prevent its spread.
  • Jinsu Kim and his colleagues at Seoul National University have developed "double-muscle" pigs that produce twice as much muscle as a regular pig, resulting in higher protein, lower fat pork.

In both cases, researchers have precisely targeted an individual pig gene to create a mutation that turns up or turns down certain genes. The African swine fever resistant pig has an immune gene that is slightly more like a warthog's. The double-muscle pig has a mutation similar to one produced by normal breeding in a muscly cow breed called the Belgian blue.

The pigs aren't "transgenic" — that is, they don't contain genes from other organisms. That makes them unlike some genetically modified crops already on the market, which may contain genes from organisms such as bacteria.

Safety concerns depend on animal

One of the concerns that critics have had about transgenic organisms is the possibility that they could introduce new allergens into the food supply via a protein that is not normally found in organisms we eat, said Greg Jaffe, director of the project on biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, D.C., in an interview with The Current.

"That wouldn't be a concern for the double-muscle pig because you're not adding a new gene in," he said. "I'm not saying that's a completely safe application…. But they will have different safety concerns."

Jaffe said the food safety and environmental safety of every genetically modified animal needs to be considered on a case by case basis, as the risks vary with each one.

CHINA-PORK/SOYOIL

A pork vendor is pictured at a market in Beijing, China. Korean scientists are developing 'double-muscle' pigs that produce pork higher in protein and lower in fat than normal pork. (Claro Cortes IV/Reuters)

Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, agrees.

"These are all very different traits that have very different potential impacts," he told The Current.

However, most people don't know much about genetic engineering, he said.

"So I think that makes it hard to discuss with someone in the general public."

He noted that the genetic modifications that researchers are making to pigs are "aimed at addressing what we'd all probably agree are important problems."

"There are risks with these technologies, there are risks with every technology," he said. "There are also risks with not approving these technologies."

But he acknowledged that surveys show that the public has a general aversion to genetic modification and is willing to pay more to avoid GMO products.

"I don't think it's necessarily a fear of genetic engineering — it's a fear of uncertainty," he said.

That aversion can be offset somewhat if people know why the animals are being modified, he added.

Regulatory concerns

Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator for the Canadian Biotechnology Network, said a major reason why consumers are wary is because of the way genetically modified foods are regulated in Canada.

Health Canada doesn't do its own testing of the foods, relying instead on data generated by the companies trying to put the foods on the market, which is kept secret. It doesn't disclose what it's assessing. Nor does it consult with farmers or consumers, or require labelling of genetically modified foods after the fact, she added.

"The issue of transparency … is so deep," she told The Current.

She thinks, at the very least, meat and fish from genetically modified animals should be labelled on grocery store shelves.

Jaffe said in the U.S., safety information about genetically modified foods is also kept secret.

"We have been very critical of that. We do think there needs to be transparency and public participation in the regulatory process," he said.

He disagrees that the government should become involved in testing: "That would be a huge expense on the taxpayer."

As far as he knows, he said, the companies involved are responsible for testing all other consumer products, including drugs. But he said it's important that companies follow testing protocols set out by governments, and they assess the data independently, and are transparent about the data to give consumers confidence.

"I think that that would be critical if there's going to be acceptance of this technology here."