Phil Graham on 11 Oct 2000 04:49:11 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] harmless, huh?

Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2000 13:20:17 +1300
From: Robert Mann <>
Subject: harmless, huh?
To: Recipient List Suppressed: ;


Hello stirrers
              For nearly two years I have been working with an international
team of experts to compile the full story on the GE tryptophan which, as
you may have gathered, killed and maimed many people a decade ago.
         The attached popular-level article will bring you into in the
picture.  I have taken the liberty of offripping a big address list just
given to me by some fellow stirrers.  I hope you will forgive me for
intruding on you with this message.  Its importance should be evident.  A
few of youse will affect to take this as equivalent to rape; if so, please
just whine  -  in a consciousness-raising manner, of course  -  to each
other.  Most of you, I am confident, will be grateful for and will want to
onsend this summary.
         The U of Queensland staff newspaper recently printed a letter from
a Dr Jimmy Botella claiming "the fact remains that after 13 years of
consuming genetically modified food, there hasn't been as much as a skin
rash caused by this kind of food".  The editor has now refused to print a
letter of correction outlining the SDKK disaster.  Such bias will occur
over & over as the media tout GE as our economic saviour (nothing could be
further from the truth).
         Therefore it is up to us to promulgate the fact that GE food can
kill & maim.
         As it is impossible to predict which GEF will be harmful, none
should be permitted until it has been very thoroughly tested.  No such
testing has been done -  as you can see from .
         The other two best sites on GE are   and


Robt Mann
consultant ecologist
P O Box 28878   Remuera, Auckland 1005, New Zealand
                 (9) 524 2949

revised June 2000 from the GE issue of 'Soil & Health (NZ)' Aug '99:


                 L R B Mann,  D Straton  & W E Crist

  By the end of the 1980s some millions of people, mostly in North America, 
were supplementing their diet with L-tryptophan, an essential amino-acid 
present in proteins
of any normal diet.  Amino-acids such as tryptophan are routinely produced
in micro-breweries using suitable microbial cultures.  One producer, Showa
Denko K.K., artificially inserted genes into a bacterial species to
increase its production of tryptophan.

Then in late 1989, some 5,000 - 10,000 in North America fell ill with a highly
unusual if not completely novel illness, EMS (eosinophilia-myalgia
syndrome) caused by Showa Denko tryptophan.  Within months, dozens had been 
killed and thousands maimed.
Today thousands continue to suffer permanent nasty effects, and a trickle
of them continue to die early (at least 80 total by now).  The epidemic 
ceased when non-prescription tryptophan was severely restricted.

  We emphasize that if thalidomide had happened to cause a type of birth
defect that was already common, e.g. cleft palate or severe mental
retardation, we would still not know about the harm, and pregnant women
would have kept on taking it for its undoubted benefits.  The fractional
addition to figures which were already relatively large would not have been
statistically  significant.  But as it turned out, the damage noticed was
of a kind that most doctors never see in a whole career  -  drastic
malformations of the arms & legs  -  so although the numbers were not huge
these cases were picked up.

  Similarly, impurities in the GE tryptophan happened to cause an illness
(EMS) which was novel.  The surge of numbers therefore
stood out and got noticed.  If Showa Denko's poison had caused the same
numbers but of a common illness instead, say asthma, we would still not
know about it.  Or if it had caused delayed harm, such as cancer 20 - 30
years later, or senile dementia in some whose mothers had taken it early in
pregnancy, there would have been no way to attribute the harm to the cause.

This reminds us of the need for extreme caution with GE foods.  They must
be assumed guilty until lengthy tests have suggested they are, if not
innocent, at worst guilty of only minor dangers.  Such is nowhere near the
case today as large companies rush to market their GE foods.

  It is very disappointing to find a leading physician, Prof Sir John 
Scott, writing about this
disaster thus: "Rare cases of EMS were known before the introduction of the
genetically engineered bacterium, which further supports the hypothesis
that EMS is not due to the genetic engineering event."
         An exact analogue of that argument would run: "Rare cases of
seal-limb were known before the introduction of thalidomide, which further
supports the hypothesis that seal-limb is not due to thalidomide."
But even more important is the fact that the trickle of about 100 early 
cases, years before the epidemic of late 1989, were due to (early versions 
of) Showa Denko GE microbial cultures.
No other manufacturer's tryptophan caused EMS.

The contrast is startling with the elaborate procedure before registration
of a new drug.  It has taken a decade to get legal approval for
supplementing humans with (a modified version of) the human hormone amylin,
for treating diabetics.  Yet GE foods are urged for legal distribution in
great haste and with only extremely scanty testing, and the main discussion
so far has been whether they should be labelled.

Labelling would not in itself be wrong, but can of course not substitute
for the careful lengthy testing that would be needed before any GE food
should be approved for human consumption.  Labelling of GE food would imply
acceptance by authorities, as does the ingredient list of any labelled food.

The Showa Denko disaster is crucial to understanding GE food.  If a
purified single chemical  -  the natural amino-acid L-tryptophan, better
than 99% pure and definitely meeting the notorious 'substantial
equivalence' test  -  can turn out when GEd to kill dozens and cripple
thousands, what will it take to check properly a potato containing a
synthetic 'exact' copy of a gene for a toxin from the African clawed toad?

And most urgently, the attempt to count as 'substantially equivalent'
purified sugars, oils etc. is shown by the Showa Denko disaster to be a
gamble.  The assumption that soy oil from GE soybeans is exactly equivalent
to ordinary soy oil requires the most careful scientific measurements to
check it.  Merely assuming 'substantial equivalence' will not do.

Those who search the internet on this topic will soon discover the claim by
apologists for GE that the problem was only decreased purification of 
tryptophan.  We disagree for several reasons - mainly, the first 3 GE 
strains had been causing EMS for years before this slackening of procedure 
in Jan 1989 when also the superproducer strain went into production and 
caused the epidemic.  But this question cannot be settled with finality 
unless Showa Denko release the GE microbes for detailed examination.

Whether you believe the impurities were due to incompetent purification &
monitoring, or to deviant metabolism in the GE-bugs, or both, you had
better believe that the fabled 'substantially equivalent' assumption
flopped in that epidemic of crippling & lethal illness.

The most menacing forms of biotechnology are genetically engineered foods
and other uncontained GE organisms, but some other forms of biotechnology
entail serious threats to public health which are under even less control than
chemical poisons - and that's saying something.

If faulty filtering was indeed the problem, it follows that the production
of amino-acids and other 'Health Food supplements' may be much more
inherently hazardous than has been believed.  Perhaps the Health Food
Industry should be subject to controls on purity and safety comparable to
those applied to the pharmaceutical industry.
Either way, biotechnology  -  which includes GE but also includes other 
processes such as purifying the mixture "lyprinol" from green-lipped 
mussels  -  requires much-enhanced scrutiny.

Good sources

1. L-Tryptophan Puzzle Takes New Twist, Science 249  988, 31
  August 1990
2. Does Medical Mystery Threaten Biotech? Science 250  619, 2
  November 1990
3. EMS and Tryptophan Production: A Cautionary Tale, Trends in Biotech  12
   346-352, September 1994.
4.  Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome. Results of national surveillance. J Am 
Med Assoc  264 1698-703 1990

Dr Mann, a biochemist, served for its first dozen years on the Toxic
Substances Board advising successive New Zealand ministers of health on
poisons.  Dr Straton is a psychiatrist who has taken a special interest in
therapeutic uses of tryptophan.  Mr Crist is a publicist who has 
interviewed researchers, victims, and lawyers involved with EMS.


Opinions expressed in this email are my own unless otherwise stated.
Phil Graham, Lecturer (Communication), Graduate School of Management
University of Queensland, Ph:  617 3381 1083; Fax:  617 3381 1083;
Mobile 0401 737 315; homepage:

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