Scientists have been quick to underplay the risks associated with bacterial DNA being accidentally incorporated into the genomes of ‘gene edited’ bulls that were used to breed Australian cows. However, the bacterial genes found in the bulls conferred resistance to three different antibiotics commonly used in both cattle and humans.

Louise Sales from Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project said, “there is a risk that these resistance genes could have been transferred to disease causing bacteria in either cattle or humans – potentially rendering them immune to treatment by these antibiotics.”

The World Health organisation considers antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”

Ms Sales said “Regulators in the US and Europe have acknowledged the potential risks posed by these techniques and will be strictly regulating their use in animals. However, in Australia the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) is allowing a number of these techniques to be used in animals with no regulation at all. And our food regulator FSANZ is proposing allowing products from gene edited animals onto our supermarket shelves with no safety testing or labelling.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has argued that the discovery of bacterial DNA in gene edited cattle illustrates why these techniques need to be regulated. The agency has warned that unexpected genetic changes could “affect the safety of food derived from the animal.” According to FDA scientist Steven Solomon:

“Consumers expect the FDA to ensure their food is safe and our international trading partners expect that the FDA will have completed a scientific evaluation that determines that exported products are safe.”

Ms Sales said “European countries will also be regulating these new GM techniques and their products. Surely, we deserve the same protection in Australia?”

“Genetically modifying animals also poses serious ethical and animal welfare concerns. Gene editing is less precise than claimed and results in many unexpected and unpredictable genetic mutations in mammals. Gene editing techniques can inadvertently cause very low live-birth rates; abnormal sizes – rendering animals incapable of natural movement; and respiratory and cardiac problems.”

“Most Australians are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of genetically modifying animals for food and it is outrageous that FSANZ plans to allow products from GM animals into our supermarkets with no labelling or safety testing. Such a move would completely undermine the agency’s primary objectives of protecting public health and providing adequate information to consumers.”