Huffpost
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robyn O'Brien Headshot

Dear Secretary Vilsack: Please Reconsider the Fate of Our Milk

Posted: Updated:

On January 27, 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture approved the biotech industry's newest product, a livestock feed given to our nation's dairy cows -- genetically engineered alfalfa. This livestock feed (alfalfa) will not only affect our nation's milk supply, given the novel proteins and allergens that it contains, but it also may present a risk to the increasing number of food allergic Americans.

Prior to the USDA's decision not to regulate Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa, the following letter was submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture:

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

Your work to restore the health of the American children is remarkable, and as a mother of four children enrolled in the public school system, there really are not words to convey the gratitude that you are owed for your efforts.

Your personal story, which you so candidly share about your own weight struggles as a child, is a poignant reminder of how food affects us in more ways than we could ever imagine.

It is along those lines that I am writing to you today. As you know, obesity is taking its toll on the health of our children. But the correlation between the growing number of food allergic children and the introduction of genetically engineered foods into our food supply in 1994 is of equal concern to the health of families.

According to an October 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control, there has been a 265 percent increase in the rates of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions. With the recent introduction of the first genetically engineered protein into the food supply in 1994 (a synthetic growth hormone designed to enhance profitability for the dairy industry), the dairy allergy is now the most common food allergy in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal and CNN. With the introduction of the second genetically engineered product in 1996 (genetically engineered soy), soy became one of the top eight allergens, and studies demonstrated a 50 percent increase in the rate of soy allergies.

And while correlation is not causation, the body of a child with food allergies sees food proteins as "foreign" and launches an inflammatory response to drive out the "foreign invader." With the introduction of foreign proteins into our food supply in 1994 through the genetic engineering process, novel and foreign proteins have been introduced into our food that weren't there when you and I were children. The biotech industry does an extraordinary job of analyzing the impact that the introduction of known allergens created in the genetic engineering process will have on our health, according to the Food Biotechnology Subcommittee of the Food Advisory Committee, but no tests have yet been developed to assess the effects that the introduction of the novel allergens and proteins created in the process will have on the health and developing immune system of a child.

Because there are not yet tests to prove the safety of these novel proteins and allergens, parents in other developed countries have been alerted to this fact and these genetically engineered proteins were either not allowed into the food supply, particularly into children's foods, or these novel proteins were labeled so that parents could make an informed choice when it comes to feeding their families.

As you know, Secretary Vilsack, there is controversy around the allergenicity associated with this new technology (which created tension back in 2002 at a government meeting of the Food Biotechnology Subcommittee of the Food Advisory Committee in which the committee's acting chair, Edward N. Brandt, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., said "Of course, we haven't worked into this some kind of test for allergencity, per se"), prompting this reaction from renowned allergist, Dr. Fred McDaniel Atkins: "To me, the logical problem is that we are going to take that stuff and feed it to the public without their informed consent."

As our children become increasingly allergic, not only does this create federal and regulatory challenges in schools and for the food industry that might exceed any private benefit that the biotech industry may receive from the approval of this patented product, but it also creates additional challenges for our burdened health care system given the increasing rates of emergency hospitalizations being seen in these children.

Post-market surveillance would demonstrate that the novel allergens and proteins that have been introduced into our food supply in the last 15 years should give all of us reason to pause and assess the safety of these new products, given the increasing rates of food-allergic Americans.

Consequently, and with the utmost sincerity, I urge you to delay the approval of genetically engineered alfalfa. I believe this alfalfa will directly impact our children's milk supply, given that it is used as livestock feed for dairy cows. I urge you to place the same value on the lives of the American children that has already been placed on the lives of children in other developed countries, and exercise precaution when it comes to the use of these genetically engineered proteins in their food -- not only because the novel proteins and allergens found in genetically engineered alfalfa have not yet been proven safe, but also because these novel proteins and allergens do not appear in children's foods in other developed countries due to their potential risks.

The enormity of your responsibility to the health of our children cannot be underestimated. We owe you a debt of gratitude, as the legacy of your decision will have such an incredible and far-reaching impact.

With the kindest regards and heartfelt thanks for your courage and dedication,

Robyn O'Brien
Founder, AllergyKids Foundation
Author, "The Unhealthy Truth"
Mother of Four