CRISPR sausage gets FDA green light for consumption

The first-of-its-kind approval could change how we think about gene-edited foods.

The FDA has given Washington State University (WSU) researchers the green light to feed five gene-edited pigs to people. The approval could help build public trust in CRISPR’d foods and be the first step in a new food revolution. 

The background: Farmers have been selectively breeding animals for thousands of years, pairing parents with desirable traits to create offspring with more eggs, more meat, less disease, and a host of other traits.

Gene-editing technologies provide a potentially faster, more precise way to create animals with desirable traits.

While we have selective breeding to thank for much of the meat we eat today, it’s also a slow and imprecise process. Breeding any two animals changes thousands of combinations of genes all at once, sometimes creating new problems along with the selected trait.

Gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, which enable us to add, delete, or edit single genes, provide a potentially faster, more precise way to create animals with desirable traits.

What’s new? Gene-editing is still a relatively new technique, and the FDA has approved just a few gene-edited animals for human consumption, including a line of heat-resistant beef cattle and pigs whose meat won’t trigger a severe allergy in people with alpha-gal syndrome.

Now, the FDA has issued an investigational approval to researchers at WSU, giving them the green light to feed people meat from a new line of pigs, which are genetically engineered to be sterile.

The technique may allow farmers to get far more offspring from a prized pig than would be possible normally.

But… why? The idea, which seems counterintuitive, is actually to use these sterile male pigs for selective breeding, by turning them into “surrogate sires.” 

After using CRISPR to knock out a gene and render the males sterile, the team implanted them with sperm-producing stem cells from another pig. The normally sterile males would then create offspring with that pig’s genes.

Theoretically, this technique allows farmers to take a pig with many desirable traits and get far more offspring from it than would be possible using just the one animal’s sperm — effectively transplanting the prized pig’s ability to reproduce into other pigs.

“With this technology, we can get better dissemination of desirable traits and improve the efficiency of food production,” lead researcher Jon Oatley told WSU News in 2020. “This can have a major impact on addressing food insecurity around the world.”

Looking ahead: WSU hasn’t submitted the surrogate offspring of their CRISPR’d sires to the FDA for potential human consumption, and it’s not clear they will — it took two years and more than $200,000 just to get five CRISPR’d pigs through the regulatory process.

Those animals have since been slaughtered, and some of their meat was inspected by the US Department of Agriculture. The rest was made into German-style sausages that will be sold to raise money for WSU’s meat judging team.

Why it matters: Gene-edited animals could strengthen the food supply and even improve animal welfare, but many consumers are still hesitant to eat them, and we won’t be able to take full advantage of the tech’s benefits without public acceptance.

In addition to filling a few bellies, WSU’s CRISPR’d sausage has the potential to change some minds.

“There’s a trust that comes with university-based research.”

Jon Oatley

In 2022, researchers at Iowa State University conducted a survey that found that people who say they are unlikely to try gene-edited foods are also highly distrustful of the companies making them, which makes sense on some level: those companies have a financial stake in getting people to buy what they’re selling.

The WSU team’s sausage is the first FDA-approved gene-edited meat that wasn’t developed by a private company, and the researchers are hopeful that the approval might encourage people to believe that the science behind gene-edited animals is sound.

“There’s a trust that comes with university-based research,” said Oatley. “At WSU, we’re all about the science. We just want to make sure the research is valid, and the animals we produce are healthy.”

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