No risk assessment and labelling for eggs and hens of genetically modified origin?

Following an EU Commission statement, it can be concluded that eggs and laying hens that originate from genetically engineered hens may be marketed in the EU without risk assessment and labelling. This has been uncovered by research of the German Biotech Industry watchdog TestBiotech. This would conflict with the EU GMO legislation that prescribes a thorough approval process for GMOs in Europe.

In the concrete case, researchers have used genome editing to insert genetic material foreign to birds (transgenes) into birds, with the aim to destroy male chick embryos in-ovo (within the egg). The inserted gene can, for example, code for a protein that leads to the death of male embryos within the egg. The patent that has been filed on this system could find its practical application in the production of edible eggs from chicken, turkey, or duck. Male chickens are often killed at the hatchery in egg production. The patent for this technique has also been filed at the European Patent Office.

While scientists aim at reducing off-target effects, meaning that the transgene is inserted in a place where it should not be, these unintended effects of genetic engineering can also happen in this case, as shown by data provided with the patent application. These risks are confirmed by basic research that highlights that offspring from gene-edited animals can suffer from unintended genetic changes.

Keeping this in mind, it is worrying news that the European Commission does not consider these laying hens derived from transgenic hens, as animals that fall under the remit of the EU GMO legislation. The Commission is not questioning the line of the patent applicants claiming the technology is safe. Consequently, eggs produced by these hens would not need an authorization – only the mother hens do. This means in practice that neither the laying hens nor the eggs would need to undergo any type of risk assessment, which would potentially be able to detect unintended effects. The recent example of the gene-edited cattle that did not go as planned is an example of why these controls are a crucial safety net. Furthermore, there would also be no requirement for labelling and thereby offering consumers transparency and freedom of choice.

Knowing that unintended effects can happen, the question remains what the basis for the EU Commission is to come to their conclusion. IFOAM Organics Europe has been a strong advocate of the precautionary principle and to take potential risks from new genetic engineering techniques (including gene editing) seriously. The organic movement therefore thinks that they should be risk assessed, labelled and traceability guaranteed, for safety and freedom of choice for producers and consumers.

Techniques that do not rely on genetic engineering and spare the hatched male chicken from being killed, are testing the sex of the embryo inside the egg or the use of ‘all-round’ chicken breeds for which both females and males can be used for egg and meat production, respectively.

For more information on (new) GMOs and IFOAM Organics Europe’s work on this issue, please contact [email protected]. IFOAM Organics Europe members can find more information on the member extranet and background materials in the arguments database on the member extranet (main messages, arguments/FAQs, visuals & videos). Contact [email protected] for access rights (issues).

For information about what you can gain from being a member, read our membership page and contact [email protected].

We thank the sponsors of our “Organic Movement Activities on Seed Diversity & GMO Regulation” project

I accept I do not accept