News Stories

New Food from Fungus

A fake meat that is made from fungus, but tastes like chicken (of course) has arrived in U.S. supermarkets. Known as mycoprotein, it is marketed under the trade name Quorn (pronounced kworn) and made into a variety of fake foods, including chicken-like nuggets, lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo and an alternative to ground beef called ?grounds.?

?It?s wonderful as far as consumers are concerned,? says Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who?s tried it. ?It?s a lot of protein for a minimal amount of calories and three to four grams of fiber.?

Scientists found the fungus growing on farms west of London in the 1960s and discovered that its long strands could be made into a product that mimics the fibrous tissue of meat. The fungus is now grown in laboratories through fermentation, then mixed with egg and flavorings and fashioned into imitation chicken or beef.

The product was developed by the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and introduced in Britain in 1985. It is now eaten in one in 20 British households, the company says, and is sold in six other European countries. It arrived in U.S. stores in January after getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

?I think it?s got a lot of potential. We just have to make sure fungus is not going to appear on the label anywhere,? says Bonci.

Labels on Quorn products say that mycoprotein ?comes from a small, unassuming member of the mushroom family, which we ferment like yogurt.? The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has complained to the FDA about the label, and says the agency should not have approved mycoprotein without requiring more review of its potential for causing allergic reactions, since it has not been sold here before.

A panel of U.S. scientists that reviewed the product at the manufacturer's expense decided there was little chance people would be allergic to Quorn. ?I think it?s going to lend itself to a lot of different things, particularly for people who want to limit their intake of meat protein,? says Sanford Miller, a former FDA food safety chief who headed the panel.

?It has as much to do with mushrooms as you and I have to do with salamanders,? says Michael Jacobson, of CSPI. ?We all know what a mushroom looks like. This ain?t it.?

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An application to sell genetically-modified Atlantic salmon with super-growth genes is now before federal regulators, who must decide if Frankenfish, as its critics call it, is safe to eat.

The FDA ruling is expected to influence the fate of dozens of other animals such as cows, chickens and pigs that could be cloned and genetically engineered in laboratories across the country. A decision is expected by 2004.

The GM salmon, raised by Aqua Bounty Farms Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts, grow to market size twice as fast as natural salmon. Supporters say these salmon would sell for less in supermarkets, while easing pressure on wild or hatchery-raised fish.

Maryland permits farming of genetically modified fish in ponds or lakes that don?t connect to other waterways, although in the U.S., GM fish are currently only raised in tanks that are separated from natural habitats. California is considering outlawing genetically engineered fish. A bill pending in the California Senate would ban the import, possession or release of GM fish anywhere in the state, with violators fined up to $50,000. California supermarkets and fish markets (but not restaurants) would have to label genetically modified fish, under another pending bill.

English researchers are working on creating genetically-modified tilapia fish, while Canadian researchers are working on GM Chinook salmon. GM tilapia are being considered for approval by Cuba, and genetically altered carp by China.New Zealand researchers have developed salmon they say could reach 550 pounds, but have halted the project due to public protests.

Opponents fear the engineered fish will mean the demise of naturally grown species if they are allowed to crossbreed. They say the escape of GM fish could soon drive the wild population to extinction because the ?superfish? could have a competitive advantage over native fish for food, mates and habitat.

But when a Purdue study tracked tiny Japanese fish called medaka that were altered with a growth gene from Atlantic salmon, their research showed the opposite. They found that the gene-altered salmon swim slower, reproduce poorly, use more oxygen and take more risks for food than their wild cousins, says Aqua Bounty vice president Joseph McGonigle and Auburn University fisheries researcher Rex Dunham.

GM catfish have about a 10 percent lower survival rate if they?re forced to compete with native fish, says Dunham. ?They?re simply not adapted to life in the wild,? agrees McGonigle. ?We just seem to be an easy target because fish have that gee-whiz factor.?

Researchers are promising to use only sterilized fish that can?t reproduce even if they escape. Naturally grown Atlantic salmon have escaped in the past from the ocean fish farms where they are raised in Washington?s Puget Sound and in waters across the border in British Columbia.

These fish are an ocean away from their normal breeding grounds, and biologists say interbreeding with Pacific salmon is unlikely. However, Canadian biologists have found young Atlantic salmon in two streams on Vancouver Island, indicating that the farm-raised fish have been able to reproduce.

Already, more than half the salmon sold in the United States is farm-raised, but it is still natural fish. Soon we may be eating fish that has been created in a laboratory and never seen the ocean.

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A federal judge approved a $9 million settlement Thursday in a class-action lawsuit by consumers who complained of allergic reactions to genetically modified Starlink corn that was illegally made into food sold in supermarkets.

Under the settlement approved by U.S. District Judge James Moran, a group of food companies will include $6 million in coupons, each good for a dollar off, to packages of their products. Any part of the $6 million not used by consumers through the coupons will be paid into a fund that will be used to support as-yet-undetermined charities or food research groups.

Testing that led to the lawsuit began when an environmental group found StarLink corn in taco shells. Somehow, the StarLink corn had been mixed with regular corn.

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Russia is banning imports of all American chicken drumsticks and has accused the U.S. of using harmful growth hormones in them. The Ukraine banned U.S. drumsticks on January 1 for similar reasons.

More than a billion chicken legs are imported in Russia each year. Drumsticks in Russia are known as ?Bush?s legs,? after former President George Bush, because they were first imported in large numbers in the early 1990s as part of a food aid package. The inexpensive ?Bush?s legs? are now so popular among Russians they earn the U.S. between $600 million and $800 million a year.

But that may soon change. Alexei Gordeyev, the Agriculture Minister, says, ?Russia is not a garbage dump for poor-quality food.?

To learn more about GM Foods, read ?Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers? by Ronnie Cummins and Ben Lilliston, click here.

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