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Genetic Modification of Food Research Paper

© Levi Bloom March 3, 2003

Grace Booth had eaten a chicken enchilada that day, right before she developed severe diarrhea and difficulty breathing. She was rushed to a hospital and treated for anaphylactic shock. It was not until several days later that Booth learned of a nationwide recall of taco shells and other corn products because they contained StarLink, a genetically modified type of corn. StarLink had only been approved for animal consumption because it could possibly trigger dangerous allergic reactions in people.

StarLink corn is just one example of the many genetically modified foods available. Genetic engineering, a new process of DNA manipulation, is sweeping across the nation. Its most popular form, gene splicing, involves moving and replacing genes on a chromosome. Using restriction enzymes which cut apart strands of DNA at specific locations, new pieces of DNA can be inserted and combined using other enzymes. When the cell divides, it will reproduce the newly formed DNA. This method was developed by Stanly Cohen and Annie Chang at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Herbert Boyer and Robert Helling at the University of California.

Common uses of genetic engineering include producing healthier, easier to grow, and more plentiful crops. Other aspects of genetic engineering include biopharming, pest and disease resistance, and herbicide tolerance. Biopharming is the attempt to produce pharmaceuticals in crops. The genes used in this type of modification will turn normal crops into edible vaccines. Crops can also be implanted with genes that produce toxins that kill certain insects and other pests or genes that make the crop resistant to a certain disease. Crops tolerant of herbicides, such as RoundUp, are becoming common now, too.

Genetic engineering has been progressing in recent years, but the concept itself is quite old. It dates back to early corn breeding experiments in which preferred traits were identified and passed on to offspring. Many changes have occurred since then, and they have led to the current complexity of the industry. Genes are now being transferred not only between the same breed of crops, but also between highly dissimilar organisms as shown in experiments by Stanley Cohen.

Currently field tests are being conducted across the United States, and products containing genetically engineered ingredients are being sold in supermarkets. The biotechnology companies are focusing mostly on corn and soy products, which have large markets and a high profit potential.

The Food and Drug Administration's labeling policy for genetically engineered foods states that labeling is only required if the new product differs significantly from the original, a gene from a commonly allergenic food is being introduced into a food that was not previously considered allergenic, or if the food contains a known toxic substance. For example, if a modified tomato no longer contained Vitamin C, it would be required to be labeled.

Genetic engineering is faced with mixed reactions among consumers. People from foreign countries are very reluctant to accept the new technology. Therefore, many foreign countries, including those in the European Union, are not purchasing the modified foods.

The science of biotechnology is moving too quickly. What makes things worse is that there is very little understanding of the new technology, even among the top scientists. I feel that genetic engineering of food needs to be stopped. It poses too many threats to be pursued at this point in time.

The various problems could impact our health, the environment, society, and the economy. There is also the possibility of producing unexpected and irreversible effects. Problems caused by genetic engineering are greater threats than any problems that it is attempting to solve.

Health hazards may be caused by any attempt at genetic modification. They may relate to allergens, nutritional value, antibiotic resistance, or safety. Environmental hazards are also very likely. The current agriculture system will be forced to change drastically.

Changing the current agriculture system will have a dramatic effect on society and the economy. Farmers and consumers alike will be affected. With the resistance in foreign countries, we will be separating ourselves from the rest of the world.

These problems cannot begin to be solved without proper regulations and requirements. Currently there are very few, and they are very general. Continuing this form of biotechnology is a disaster waiting to happen.

The first, and probably most direct, problem caused by genetic engineering is the effect it will have on our health. One possibility is the production of unexpected effects. This can be caused by the placement of newly inserted genes. Due to their random placement in the DNA, new genes can disrupt the genetic instructions and prior functions of the crop's existing genes. Their placement at unpredictable locations can also produce unforeseeable changes in the plant. One effect of this would be an increase in the toxin levels in the food. A foreign gene could shut off a gene that blocks production of a toxin, effectively letting the plant produce the toxin. According to Rachel Massey of the Environmental Research Foundation and publisher of Rachel's Environment & Health News, "a plant that ordinarily produces high amounts of a toxin in its leaves and low amounts in its fruit could unexpectedly begin to concentrate the toxin in its fruit after addition of a new gene." (Massey) Sometimes completely new toxins or allergens will be produced. (Jacobson) This is not surprising because during the engineering process, scientists may unknowingly insert additional genetic material into the plant. According to Massey, "sometimes genetic engineers introduce additional genetic material into the target cell without knowing it." (Massey) New toxins are not the only threat. There is also the potential for activation of dormant toxins or allergens. (Rein 104)

"In 1989, a genetically engineered brand of Ltryptophan, a common dietary supplement, killed 37 Americans. More than 5,000 others were permanently disabled or afflicted with a potentially fatal and painful blood disorder, dosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS)." After this incident, the supplement was recalled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the manufacturer, Showa Denko, paid out over two billion dollars in damages. It is believed that the bacteria used to produce the supplement somehow became contaminated during the recombinant DNA process. (Cummins)

If a familiar food starts producing a new substance, it is impossible to tell who may have an allergic reaction. A 1996 study at the University of Nebraska involved feeding subjects soybeans modified with a gene from a Brazil nut. Those with an allergy to Brazil nuts had adverse reactions while those without were not affected. Consumers with allergies may unknowingly purchase allergenic foods, and allergic reactions to nuts can be serious or even fatal. (Cummins)

Nutritional value is questionable, too. It may be affected by the genetic changes. Genetically engineered soy has been found to contain 29 percent less choline, which is needed for proper functioning of the nervous system. It also contains 27 percent more trypsin inhibitor, which inhibits our ability to assimilate protein, and 200 percent more lectins, which act as antigens and increase allergies. Consequently, soy allergies increased by 50 percent and are now ranked as one of the top ten allergens. (Cousens) In 1999, a study by Dr. Marc Lappe, published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, found that concentrations of beneficial phytoestrogen compounds thought to protect against heart disease and cancer were lower in genetically engineering soybeans than in traditional strains.

The latest form of genetic engineering, biopharming, poses even more threats. Biopharming is the implanting of genes into food crops to grow drugs and industrial chemicals. According to Michael Rodemeyer, director of Washington's Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, "the whole issue of growing pharmaceuticals in food crops has certainly raised concern within the food industry, as well as among environmentalists and others, about genes from these crops getting into the food supply." In December 2002, Prodigene, a small biotech firm in Texas, agreed to pay a fine of $250,000.00 for tainting soya bean with their products. The soya bean had been contaminated with biotech corn containing a trial vaccine used to prevent stomach upsets in piglets. (Goldenberg)

"The incident overall just reaffirms our concerns that something could go wrong," says Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. These are not products that should be found in the nation's food supply. Mark Richie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, even compares biopharming to the near-meltdown of the Pennsylvania nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island. His opinion was sparked by an incident in Nebraska in which 500,000 bushels of food-grade soybeans were contaminated with remnants of pharmaceutical corn. "The biotech industry says that because some soybeans were quarantined at the last minute, no one should worry. Well, at Three Mile Island, they contained things. But that didn't mean it wasn't a crisis, and it certainly didn't mean that people should have said, 'Oh, everything's fine now. Let's just let these guys get back to business as usual.'" (Nichols)

It cannot be a good sign for the future safety of biopharming if accidents are occurring already. Richie says, "We're at the earliest stage of the attempt to genetically engineer corn plants to make them factories for producing powerful and potentially dangerous drugs, and already we have examples of contamination of food crops. This is scary stuff." (Nichols)

Biopharming is not the only time when medical products are inserted into crops. It is common for engineers to link an antibiotic resistance marker gene (ARM) to the main gene that is being inserted. The ARM helps to determine if the main gene was successfully spliced into the host organism. It is possible that ARM genes can recombine with bacteria in a human's gut, as stated in the January 30, 1999 issue of New Scientist. ("Genetically Altered...") This would add to the ever increasing resistance to antibiotics faced by the population. Another 1999 study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that bacteria in the human mouth could also take up antibiotic resistant genes released from food. This continuous exposure to antibiotics could potentially weaken the immune system.

There are still many more dangerous side effects linked to genetically engineered food. Ready RoundUp herbicide, which became more common because of genetically engineered food, has been associated with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the third fastest growing cancer in the United States. "Studies suggest that Roundup exposures can be harmful to human health. For example, exposure to glyphosate herbicides may be associated with increased occurrence of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of white blood cells." (Massey)

"And a study published last August in Environmental Health Perspectives found that in a laboratory, Roundup exposure interfered with sex hormone production in cells of testicular tumors taken from mice." (Massey)

Monsanto's rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone, could lead to breast, prostate, and colon cancer. RBGH is injected into dairy cows to force them to produce more milk. Dairy products from injected cows can contain high levels of Insulin-Like Growth Factor (IGF- I), which could lead to breast, prostate, or colon cancer. "A number of studies have shown that humans with elevated levels of IGF-I in their bodies are much more likely to get cancer." Although rBGH is used in the United States, it is not legal in any other industrialized country. (Cummins)

Some of the most alarming health hazards were presented in a 1999 study by Dr. Arpad Pusztai in Scotland. He fed genetically engineered potatoes to rats and found that these rats began to develop smaller hearts, brains, spleen and thymus, and livers in only ten days. The potatoes had been spliced with DNA from the snowdrop plant and a commonly used viral promoter, the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV). The rats' stomach linings were also damaged due to a viral infection caused by the CaMV, which is spliced into nearly all genetically engineered food and crops. It is very alarming that we could be in the same situation as the rats were.

Sometimes these products are not intended for human consumption, but it is almost impossible to keep them separate. Such was the case with StarLink, a genetically engineered form of corn that was intended for animal feed only, but managed to make it into foods intended for humans. "The corn had been inadvertently mixed with corn destined for the human food supply, prompting a massive and costly recall of corn and foods made with corn. StarLink corn was supposed to be kept from human food, but all involved acknowledge the system for doing that didn't work." The FDA received 48 reports of problems attributed to the corn, about 12 of which seemed to be true allergic reactions. This case shows how easily crops can be confused and mixed together. (Kaufman)

Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest agrees by stating, "Farmers and seed producers apparently can't ensure that corn - or other crops - grown for feed will not end up in food."

The last scenario showed how organic crops can be contaminated at the distribution level, but they can also be contaminated in the field. It is very easy for genetically engineered crops to spread great distances away from their original test fields. Since the crops are planted in open-air fields, wind, rain, birds, and other animals can carry the crops to other locations. Gabriel Cousens, M.D. states that "In Mexico, genetically engineered plants have been found 60 miles away from the original site, which gives you an idea of the seriousness of how quickly this can spread." Sometimes the genetically engineered crops can reproduce with related wild plants, possibly introducing new genetic material into the wild plant populations.

Other environmental hazards are dependent upon the genetically engineered crops themselves. Herbicide tolerant crops are becoming very popular among farmers. In 2000, almost 80 percent of the genetically engineered crops planted were herbicide resistant. These crops, referred to as Roundup Ready, are resistant to the common herbicide, Roundup. "Farmers in the system have to keep spraying more and more on crops, which means there is more toxicity in all the commercial food that had Ready Roundup on it." (Cousens)

By allowing farmers to spray Roundup over their fields without damage to their crops, its use has begun to skyrocket. According to Andrew Pollack of the New York Times, "The herbicide, know as Roundup, is beginning to lose its effectiveness in controlling weeds." When a few rare weeds survive the applications, they will be harder than ever to kill. These super weeds could spread, rendering Roundup useless. Then farmers will have more problems with weeds than they did before the herbicide resistant crops. "Eventually, experts say, farmers will need to reduce their applications on the genetically engineered soybeans and other crops to preserve the long-term usefulness."

With the heavy applications of Roundup, the plants themselves may become problematic. One such crop, canola, can survive on its own without human intervention. In Canada, herbicide resistant canola plants appear to have exchanged genetic material so that they can survive up to three herbicide applications. "These plants with multiple herbicide resistance can be difficult for farmers to control," says Rachel Massey, mentioned earlier.

Pesticide producing crops pose similar problems. These crops are engineered to produce their own pesticides. They are supposed to kill problem insects that would damage organic crops. Examples are BT corn, soy, and cotton. The BT toxin produced in the plant kills insects such as the European corn borer. The continuous exposure to BT crops may result in super bugs resistant to BT because "the use of BT crops can also promote the development of BT-resistant pest populations." (Massey) The widespread appearance of super bugs would mean the end of a once powerful pest control tool for organic farmers.

Virus resistant crops are yet another product of genetic engineering. "If a genetically engineered crop resistant to one virus is infected by another virus, the genetic material from the two viruses may sometimes interact to produce new virus types, which could be more harmful or could infect a wider range of plants than the original." (Massey). According to the article "Hazards of...," researchers experimenting at Michigan State University several years ago found that genetically altering plants to resist viruses can cause those viruses to mutate into new forms. The study involved engineering a weakened virus into a plant to vaccinate it, but the weakened virus actually mutated into new, more virulent forms.

Aside from physical effects, genetic engineering will impact society and the economy. Many ethical concerns have arisen. One is the fact that people whose diets are restricted for religious reasons may unknowingly eat crops containing animal genes. Another is that freedom of choice is being restricted. We, as Americans, have a right to know what we are buying and eating. We should be allowed to choose between genetically engineered and organic foods. Jane Lampman, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, points out "...concerns that freedom of choice is being undermined."

The farming industry will face its own problems. By moving toward genetic engineering, conventional farming will become outdated. According to the article "Biotech Crops...," if organic foods become contaminated by genetically engineered foods, they cannot be legally sold as organic. The farmer will lose the little competitive edge that he had. Many farmers will lose their jobs because they will not be able to compete with the bigger firms of the genetic engineering industry.

"Underlying much of the attacks on biotechnology is the critical question of whether a handful of giant companies - and universities - will end up controlling the world's major crops and the technology itself." (Jacobson) These big companies are a problem. There are very few of them, and they are forming monopolies in the market. An example of this is the Terminator gene seeds being developed by Monsanto. These special seeds with sought after characteristics are sold to farmers to plant. To make more money, Monsanto added new genes to the seeds so that subsequent crops would be made infertile. That means that the farmers would have to buy new seeds from Monsanto each season. "If the trend is not stopped, the patenting of transgenic plants and food-producing animals will soon lead to universal "bioserfdom" in which farmers will lease their plants and animals from biotech conglomerates such as Monsanto and pay royalties on seeds and offspring." (Cummins)

Obviously these companies are more worried about themselves than consumers. "The current crops are benefiting primarily the seed and chemical companies and farmers, not consumers. When benefits are enjoyed by one party, but possible risks are borne by another, that's a formula for suspicion." (Jacobson)

"Not surprisingly, the biotech industry prefers bigger crops that offer more potential profit." ("Biotech Crops...") The companies concentrate on crops such as corn and soy because they offer more potential profit in America. "The reason: Deepening consumer skepticism and tighter regulation worldwide are boosting costs and increasing the business risk of bringing bioengineered food to market."

Increasing resistance in other countries, especially in Europe, caused them to do so. This resistance is causing us to lose valuable export markets because those countries have imposed import bans on bioengineered foods. According to Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group based in Washington, "The dramatic slowdown isn't due to domestic regulators. It's regulation in the European Union (EU) and elsewhere."

Nevertheless, U.S. farmers are in favor of planting biotech crops as shown by the results of the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting on January 22, 2003. Genetically altered corn plantings will increase by nearly 10 percent in 2003, followed by Roundup Ready soybeans which will increase by more than eight percent. Lastly, genetically altered cotton plantings will increase by four percent. "Overall, U.S. biotech crop plantings will rise by 2.3 percent, according to a survey of farmers." ("Biotech Corn...").

The increase in genetic engineering this year should not be a problem for biotech companies, considering the lack of regulation in the industry. Currently, biotechnology companies are not required to submit safety-testing data to the FDA for review. Notification is voluntary. Labeling of genetically engineered foods is also voluntary. The FDA's policy states that labeling is only required if "the new product differs significantly from the original, a gene from a commonly allergenic food is being introduced into a food that was not previously considered allergenic, or if the food contains a known toxic substance." (Rein 106)

The lenient guidelines and regulations have resulted in a lack of studies. Genetically engineered foods are just assumed to be safe. Tests are rarely conducted on humans. The study of the Brazil nut gene spliced into a soybean study, mentioned earlier, was tested on animals only. "Animal tests of these Brazil nut-spliced soybeans had turned up negative." (Cummins) This shows that even animal testing is not enough.

According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, "There have been no studies done with humans to show what happens when genetically modified foods are consumed. The FDA has assumed that these modified foods are equivalent to the original foods and does not require any studies to have them approved." (Nichols)

Senator Barbara Boxer of the District of Columbia sums it up by saying, "despite the prevalence of genetically engineered food, the effects of its use remain largely unknown because of lack of studies."

The lack of studies translates into a lack of knowledge. There is very little understanding of biotechnology, yet it is advancing very quickly. Even scientists performing the experiments have only a slight understanding. "It's hard to read the scientific record of what's going on without being impressed by how much we don't know," says Charles Benbrook, a consultant to consumer and environmental groups and former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences' board of agriculture. ("Biotech Crops...")

The problem of lack of regulation is allowing the health, environmental, and socioeconomic problems to increase. All of these threats have the potential for disaster.

Supporters of genetic engineering argue that it will diminish world hunger by making it possible to grow more crops than ever before. They say that it will also create crops that can be grown in poverty-stricken regions, but the reverse is true. According to Gabriel Cousens M.D., "the first fact is that genetically engineered food is actually less productive than commercial or organic food." Various research projects have found it to be about four to eleven percent less effective per acre. It could also hurt the small farmers in developing nations, which would be worsening their economies. Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says "...and in developing nations it could jeopardize the livelihoods of small farmers." With resistance to biotechnology increasing in many other nations, would any of them actually accept genetically engineered crops?

People in the biotechnology industry say that genetic engineering is safe, and there is no proof to the contrary. As mentioned earlier, due to their lack of studies and tests, they are not able to provide proof of safety. However, other scientists mentioned earlier have conducted tests and found that genetic engineering can cause unwanted effects. It can also be linked to many problems, such as the allergic reactions to StarLink corn. If genetic engineering is safe, why are some genetically engineered foods not approved for human consumption?

Industry representatives also say that biotechnology has been embraced by the public. The public does not even know which actual foods are produced by the science. "In fact, genetically engineered foods are not labeled, so the public has no knowledge - and no choice - about purchasing and eating them." (Massey) There were also surveys conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that show that a majority of consumers are resisting biotechnology. When consumers were asked if they would buy foods labeled as being from crops made with genetic engineering, only 40% to 43% said that they would buy those foods, according to a 2001 CSPI national opinion poll. A survey by the IFIC shows that less than 20 percent of the population is well informed about biotechnology. (Rein 106)

Another argument is that pesticide and herbicide use will decrease. According to Rachel Massey, studies have shown that farmers planting genetically engineered crops use as many or more herbicides than conventional farmers. A 1999 study of soybean farming in the U.S. Midwest found that farmers planting Roundup Ready soybeans used 2 to 5 times as many pounds of herbicide per acre as farmers using conventional systems. (Massey) Those farmers do not have to worry about their plants so they can be more liberal with their applications. With super pests and weeds emerging, future pesticide and herbicide use will increase. The strength of the pesticides will have to increase, too.

The phenomenon known as gene silencing will play a role in herbicide resistant crops. Gene silencing is the process by which a cell blocks expression of foreign DNA. A recent study found that infection with the cauliflower mosaic virus could trigger silencing of an inserted gene for herbicide tolerance. The plant tried to protect itself from the infection by silencing the viral genes and, at the same time, silenced the genes inserted for herbicide tolerance. (Massey)

The evidence stated thus far shows many, but not all, of the problems posed by the genetic modification of food. Organic foods are disappearing, unexpected changes are occurring in genetically engineered foods, and nutritional value is decreasing. This could lead to poor health and high levels of disease.

Along with our health, the environment will deteriorate due to excess herbicides and pesticides. Pesticides produced by plants cannot simply be washed off before eating. Super pests and new viruses will emerge and need to be taken care of. The economy is not even immune to the threats of biotechnology. The agriculture industry is being affected already, and others are sure to follow.

These problems will continue as long as biotechnology continues. Without proper testing, we will not know what else to expect. Just remember that these effects are irreversible. Living organisms that are already in the wild cannot be contained.

"I could certainly be wrong, but it is my belief that genetically modified foods represent the largest threat to the health of future generations," says Dr. Joseph Mercola.

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Caroline. History of Science: Genetics. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

"Biotech Corn and Soy Crops Scheduled to Increase in 2003" 22 January 2003.

American Farm Bureau Federation. Internet. www.mercola.com/ 8 February 2003.

"Biotech Crops on the Way Out?" 30 August 2001. Christian Science Monitor. Internet. www.organicconsumers.org/ 9 February 2003.

"Biotechnology and Food" FMI Media Backgrounder. Internet. www.fmi.org/ 26 January 2003.

Cousens, Gabriel. "Genetically Engineered Food" Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center. Internet. www.vegweb.com/ 6 February 2003.

Cummins, Ronnie. "Hazards of Genetically Engineered Foods and Crops" Organic Consumers Association. Internet. www.organicconsumers.org/ 9 February 2003.

Environmental News Network. "U.S. Gene-Altered Crops Rejected Overseas" 27 June 2001. Organic Consumers. Internet. www.organicconsumers.org/ 9 February 2003.

"Genetically Altered Plants Might Alter You" 30 January 1999. New Scientist. Internet. www.mercola.com/ 2 February 2003.

Goldenberg, Suzanne. "Alarm As GM Pig Vaccine Taints US Crops" 24 December 2002. The Guardian. Internet. www.guardian.co.uk/ 25 January 2003.

"The Grocery Manufacturers Association" Environmental Working Group. Internet. www.ewg.org/ 9 February 2003.

Jacobson, Michael. "Agricultural Biotechnology: Savior or Scourge?" 22 May 2001. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Internet. www.cspinet.org/ 9 February 2003.

"Common Sense on Biotechnology" 25 January 2001. Wall Street Journal. Internet. www.cspinet.org/ 9 February 2003.

Jaffe, Gregory. "Labeling Genetically Modified Foods: Communicating or Creating Confusion?" 27 June 2002. Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology's Public Form. Internet. www.cspinet.org/ 9 February 2003.

Kaufman, Marc. "Biotech Corn Is Test Case for Industry" 19 March 2001. Organic Consumers. Internet. www.organicconsumers.org/ 9 February 2003.

Lampman, Jane. "Americans Turning Against Genetically Engineered Foods" 2 August 2001. The Christian Science Monitor. Internet. www.organicconsumers.org/ 9 February 2003.

Massey, Rachel. "Biotech: The Basics" 18 January 2001. Rachel's Environment & Health News. Internet. www.mercola.com/ 2 February 2003.

"National Opinion Poll on Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods" CSPI Reports. Internet. www.cspinet.org/ 8 February 2003.

Nichols, John. "Why Genetic Engineering is the Three Mile Island of Biotech" 30 December 2002. The Nation. Internet. www.mercola.com/ 4 January 2003.

"Plugging The Holes in Biotech Food Safety" 7 January 2003. Center For Science In The Public Interest. Internet. www.cspinet.org/ 25 January 2003.

Pollack, Andrew. "Widely Used Crop Herbicide Is Losing Weed Resistance" 14 January 2003. The New York Times. Internet. www.nytimes.com/ 29 January 2003.

Rein, Mei Ling et al eds. Information Plus: Nutrition. Wylie, Texas: Information Plus, 1999.

Simpson, Melissa. "Genetically Modified Food" April 2000. Food First. Internet. www.foodfirst.org/ 27 January 2003.

"What Are the Dangers?" Safe Food. Internet. www.safe-food.org/ 27 January 2003.

"What Do People Want?" Safe Food. Internet. www.safe-food.org/ 27 January 2003.

 

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