- The Food and Drug Administration approved genetically modified pigs for use in food and medicine. GalSafe pigs, made by regenerative medicine company Revivicor, have been modified to remove alpha-gal sugar from the surface of the animals' cells.
- Some people are allergic to alpha-gal sugars, which naturally occur in the cells of most mammals. The cause of this allergy, known as alpha-gal syndrome, is believed to be lone star tick bites. However, GalSafe pigs were only reviewed for allergen safety in pharmaceutical uses. They were not reviewed for safety when consumed by someone with an alpha-gal allergy, though the department affirms the meat is safe to consume in general.
- Genetically modified — or bioengineered — food products are controversial among some consumers. Per a 2016 law, all food products that contain detectable bioengineered DNA will be required to have a label denoting that. While some food companies have started disclosing bioengineered ingredients, all products must be labeled as such by 2022. There is currently one other GMO animal protein product approved for human consumption: AquAdvantage salmon.
Considering that GalSafe pigs come from a regenerative medicine company, it is somewhat understandable that they have only been evaluated for their pharmaceutical safety. After all, pig cells are used to make some common drugs, like the blood thinner heparin. Pigs are also the most desired animals for the field of xenotransplantation: using medical tissues from another animal to heal humans. It makes sense to engineer an animal to create cells without a molecule that could cause an allergic reaction to an otherwise lifesaving drug or a transplant someday to be rejected.
But considering the allergic reaction some have from consuming pork, it would have also made sense for the FDA to require Revivicor to vet its safety for these consumers. According to a U.S. Health and Human Services Department report from a working group studying tick-borne diseases, more than 5,000 people in the U.S. likely have alpha-gal syndrome. Most of these people live in the South, the report found, and it was a leading cause of severe allergic reactions.
According to the FDA's release, the meat from these pigs will be sold to consumers by mail order rather than at grocery stores. While the pandemic has opened new doors for purchasing food online, it's unclear who would be interested in this product. While many consumers don't know what GMOs are, 2018 research by Washington University of St. Louis found that a great deal were "grossed out" by the idea of food in which someone had changed DNA. There are food companies that proudly tell the world about their GMO ingredients, but most consumers don't appear to prefer eating bioengineered food.
While GalSafe pigs were modified to produce safe solutions for the medical industry, it doesn't seem that any changes have been made to make them more appealing to eat. From what the FDA published, GalSafe pork does not taste different, add any more nutritional factors or have a longer shelf life. If the meat isn't safe for alpha-gal allergic consumers to consume, there is not much reason to choose it instead of pork from larger producers.
However, it's highly likely that GalSafe pigs will be subjected to much more scrutiny before they are put on the market as meat. AquAdvantage salmon, the only other genetically modified animal cleared for human consumption, still is not available to consumers five years after it gained FDA approval. Part of the delay came because the federal government was working out GMO labeling rules, but part of it has been legal wrangling over the salmon themselves. Last month, a federal judge ruled that FDA should have given more consideration of AquAdvantage salmon's impact on wild salmon before approving the fish for consumption. While the ruling did not revoke FDA's approval, the assessment it ordered examines a fairly remote possibility. AquAdvantage salmon is raised in tanks far inland — parent company AquaBounty has a facility in Indiana that is hundreds of miles from salmon's natural habitat, and the fish itself is said to be effectively sterile.
GalSafe pigs, the FDA notes, will be kept in conditions "far more stringent than those for conventionally farmed pigs." But if AquAdvantage is an example of how regulators need to look at GMO food animals, there could be a lot of questions delaying GalSafe's availability on the market. However, this could give the company and regulators the opportunity to determine whether the meat from these animals has nonallergenic properties when eaten — something that will make the meat much more likely to sell.