Tryptophan: A Reminder
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Maybe it's because Thanksgiving always brings on a lot of talk about turkey, which if eaten (ew) instead of allowed to live, is high in tryptophan. Or maybe it's because of the biotech book I'm reading. Whatever the reason, remember the tryptophan scare? Do you know what caused it? Chances are, you don't.
It was 1989. A mysterious outbreak of a bizarre and deadly disease began quietly enough at first. Doctors named the new disease Eosinophila Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). In some people it seemed like a bad episode of the flu, but in others it became much more severe. It caused paralysis, neurological problems, heart problems, painful muscular aches, headaches, fatigue, memory loss, cognitive defects, swollen, cracked skin, and a host of other nasty symptoms. Dozens of people actually died from it.
It made front page news when the disease was eventually traced to a popular dietary supplement, the amino acid L-Tryptophan. The FDA issued an immediate recall of all the tryptophan in the country, and instituted a ban on the importation of the supplement. Panic erupted, as millions of people had been taking Tryptophan for many years for conditions such as anxiety, depression, PMS, and insomnia. Some people worried that they, too, might get sick. Others feared that the conditions for which they had taken it would return if they could not get more.
Since people had been taking the supplement for years without any incidence of EMS prior to the 1989 outbreak, scientists were perplexed. In the end, the disease was traced to the tryptophan of just one manufacturer -- Showa Denko of Japan. If you remember this at all, you probably remember that the culprit was eventually identified as "impurities" in the Showa Denko product. According to news stories at the time, Showa Denko had recently changed its manufacturing process, and this led to the illnesses.
Most people still don't know exactly how the Showa Denko tryptophan differed from all the other brands. Officials were cagey about just exactly what was going on with the manufacturing process at this plant that caused the outbreak. Even to this day, if you look for information on the great Tryptophan scare, you are likely to find a lot of allusions to the fact that it was caused by "impurities" or by faulty manufacturing techniques, and very little mention of the one important way in which Showa Denko tryptophan was different from all the rest: It was genetically engineered.
That's right, it was the only tryptohan in the country that was bio-engineered, and the only one to kill and maim those who took it. Showa Denko had embarked upon the brave new world of biotechnology in pursuit of greater profits than ever before. While this supplement, as well as several others, had been manufactured in vats of tryptophan-producing bacteria for years, Showa Denko took this process to new heights. Deciding that the natural fermentation process was too time-consuming and inefficient, Showa Denko tinkered with the genetic structure of its bacteria to produce a new, super-productive strain. They inserted several new genes into the bacteria, causing them to produce much higher-than-normal levels of some enzymes important in the production of the supplement, as well as other enzymes not normally present at all. They were never required to inform the public of this change, nor were they required to label the supplement as being the product of genetically modified organisms.
This lack of transparency led to a difficulty tracing the problem, delaying appropriate medical responses for several months. Thousands of people eventually became ill from EMS, and dozens died. To this day, and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, bio-tech advocates continue to deny any connection between the outbreak and the genetically altered bacteria. If the victims of this corporate crime had been given the choice between taking tryptophan that was produced in the traditional manner and that which was bio-engineered, they may never have become ill. But they were not given that choice. They were denied the right to informed consent to this experiment, and the results were disasterous. While the officially verified number of EMS victims is around 1600, the FDA concedes that "the true incidence of the disorder is thought to be much higher." Indeed, later estimates put the number of victims between 7,500 and 10,000. A simple label on the bottle might have cut that number considerably.
Why, then, are GE products still allowed to be secretly dumped into our food supply? Why are labels still not required on GE products, and why do most people still not know about the connection between the tryptophan scare and genetic engineering? Perhaps it is because the fox is guarding the hen house. The FDA, the agency charged with protecting our health and well-being, quietly admitted in 1990 that it failed to inform the public that the Showa Denko bacteria was genetically engineered. Further, it acknowledged that it had done so, in large part, to protect the fledgling biotech industry from the consequences that would surely follow such a revelation. In other words, they lied to us. They took part in a deliberate cover-up that put our health at risk in order to protect the multi-billion dollar biotech industry.
One would think that such a reckless and outrageous scandal would garner headlines at least as large as those which originally broke the story of the connection between EMS and L-Tryptophan in the first place, but they did not. The press gave it barely a whisper. The nation was left with the impression that unavoidable impurities had been the only cultprit, and that the FDA had selflessly worked in the public interest to bring an end to the crisis. Somehow, the corporate media seems to have quietly overlooked the more surly developments in the story. Could it be that the (largely biotech) pharmaceutical industry is one of the largest corporate media sponsors?
In any event, now you know what caused the tryptophan scare of 1989. But unless you're eating only organic food and taking supplements clearly labeled GE-free, you still do not know what kind of frankenFood surprises may be lurking in your pantry. The FDA continues to maintain that GE products are "substantially similar" to non-GE products, and therefore do not require labeling. They still refuse to point the finger of blame at genetic engineering for the EMS outbreak. They continue to issue proclamations of the safety and promise of biotechnology. But now you know who they work for.
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