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Gene foods could lead to consumers ruling the food industry

By Jess Halliday in Geneva , 10-May-2007

The emergence of foods based on nutrigenomics could spark a shift in the landscape of the food industry, says HortResearch's Karl Crawford, and the industry needs to start considering how it is going to cater for consumer demands.

Nutrigenomics is the science of how food and ingested nutrients affect genes - particularly those related to disease prevention. Although a technology in its relative infancy, Karl Crawford, business leader at HortResearch, which is involved in a six-year collaborative project called Nutrigenomics New Zealand, said, "It is going to be more than a niche."


He pointed out that there are already companies offering gene analysis services, and it is estimated that around 35,000 people have already had genetic testing in the US. The Institute for the Future estimated that as much as 30 per cent of the population may engage with nutrigenomics to a greater or lesser degree.


However Crawford could not say for sure when nutrigenomics is going to hit the mainstream. "It is bubbling away beneath the radar and will pop up at some point," he said. The traditional food landscape has been linear. Ingredient suppliers supply manufacturers, who supply retailers, who, in turn, supply consumers.


But Crawford expects the rise of nutrigenomics will mean lead to a new landscape with consumers at the centre. Ingredients suppliers, manufacturers and retailers will strive to meet consumers' needs - while still maintaining their ties with each other. And speaking at the Vitafoods International conference in Geneva yesterday, he asked: "As more consumers get snips done, how is the food industry going to respond?"


For instance, food manufacturers need to know more about the science; and so that consumers can have trust and confidence in information there may be a need for independent assessment. Crawford also expects that there will be scope for coalitions along the supply chain.


Ingredient suppliers need to consider whether they will go for direct to consumer branding, or whether they will develop gene specific logos. Retailers are likely to be a prime information source, and fragmented product ranges are likely to become more prominent. Indeed we already see special products for the dairy intolerant and wheat intolerant, for example.


Will they look selling directly over the web? Employ personal shoppers to help people make the right choices? Give out samples? Or invest in technology such as hand scanners that will tell a consumer whether a product is suitable for their particular genetic make-up? Or will there be separate shopping aisles for different gene types?- or even different specialty stores?


There may also need to be some changes to the health care system. Sixty-two per cent of people go to their doctor for health advice - yet doctors do not receive specialist training on nutrition and genetics. The system these days is more geared towards treatment than prevention. There are indications that regulators are starting to consider nutrigenomics, but Crawford said they are already struggling with functional foods, and our regulatory structures are based on protecting people.


"Can you protect someone from their genes?" he asked. In 2006, GWO sent gene samples and lifestyle information on 14 fictional consumers to four testing companies.


They said that the results were misleading to consumers, making health-related predictions that were medically unproven and too ambiguous. But Crawford said that lifestyle is just as important as genes, so if that information is made up it is no real surprise if the results are confused.


Although it is a positive sign that there is interest from governments and regulators, the fear is that attention fromunscrupulous operators could cloud the waters. "This is a worry for respectable companies in the marketplace."


What is more, as soon as you start talking about genes, there is a natural mental connection with genetically-modified (GM) foods. "It is a scary thought, that what you eat can interplay with your genes," said Crawford.


"It would be good to avoid the problem that beset GM food, where there was not enough consumer education on the effects and what it means, so it blew up into a big scary thing." For consumers to have the assurances they need, they must be provided with lots of information, guarantees of privacy, have a degree of self-knowledge (about their family history and their environment), and the technology to chose the right foods.


The Institute for the Future has called information "the currency of personalised nutrition". But there are other bioethical issues.


For instance, can nutrigenomics be simple enough to understand - and at what point can companies like HortResearch and others active in the field be sure they know enough to make a recommendation? Other issues are centred around privacy and consumer protection, to avoid genetic bias in the workplace or society at large. And there moral and business ethical issues. If you know you could help someone are you morally obliged to do so?


Intellectual property and access to information, products and services also need to be considered. "If you can't protect products or formulas, who will invest in testing?" asked Crawford. "Can you patent genes? Can you patent a gene food interaction?"


He noted that although it is possible to patent a food formulation, this is fairly easy to get around by substituting ingredients or changing ratios.


"We need to understand all of this now," said Crawford, "so we are not left wondering what to do when nutrigenomics emerges from under the radar and becomes a major theme not only in dietary supplements, but in mainstream food as well."

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