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Disposal of GE sheep presents massive biosecurity problem

The termination of PPL's experimental flock of sheep with a human gene presents a massive biosecurity problem that New Zealand authorities may be ill-equipped to handle.

Up to 1000 transgenic ewes may need to be destroyed after the Scottish company "pulled the plug" on the trials, but there are concerns that the destruction could present new risks for the environment and that there may be a temptation to turn a profit by letting meat from the animals be sold as food.

ERMA (the Environmental Risk Management Authority) last year approved an expansion of the flock despite the absence of research on their impact on soil micro-organisms. Now they face the task of ensuring the animals are humanely destroyed but there appear to be no plans in place on how to dispose of the huge number of carcasses.

GE Free NZ in food and environment is concerned that burying the animals in offal pits (as has been proposed for new GE cows at Ruakura), will increase the risks from HGT into soil. ERMA has been negligent in allowing the expansion of the flock without data to support their view that the risks from HGT are small. Such data is only now being considered as important, and has been neglected by authorities until recently. The PPL sheep were approved without such scientific research being included as a control so virtually nothing is known about their impact on soil biota.

Cases of transgenic animals being sold into the human food chain overseas also raise concerns that economic pressures and greed might prompt someone to try and make money by selling the carcasses as meat. Sale of the meat would be illegal in New Zealand, but breaches of the law have already occurred overseas, raising the spectre of similar problems here.

ERMA and the Life Sciences industry lobby group will claim that 'everything has been approved as safe' and that this will never happen, but the sheer number of GE sheep involved increases the risk.

GE Free NZ in food and environment want ERMA to publish their plan for controlled destruction of these experimental animals for peer-review by independent scientists.

"The public have little confidence in ERMA given they proceed with approvals despite the lack of adequate scientific information to truly manage the risks they claim to manage," says Jon Carapiet.

"How do they propose to prevent exposing the environment and public to risks from these animals when even incineration could be a problem as the UK authorities discovered when they burned carcasses of foot-and-mouth diseased cattle?"

ERMA has been warned that their approval of transgenic experiments such as the PPL sheep and Agresearch cows could increase the risk of creating prion diseases similar to Mad Cow Disease. Unfortunately ERMA have decided that the risks are negligible and have ignored independent scientific warnings in favour of commercialisation. The problem is that prions are infectious proteins that may even survive high temperatures. If such proteins have been created and are present they could be inadvertently spread in the process of disposing of the sheep.

ERMA have been negligent in exploring the issue of accidental creation of new prion-diseases. Before they decide on disposal by incineration they should test to ensure that they do not accidentally create a biosecurity hazard by allowing the material to spread.

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