Almost 400 pigs that had been used in US bioengineering research may have entered the food supply because they were sold to a livestock dealer instead of being destroyed, the US Food and Drug Administration has said.

The FDA said that researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign released 386 pigs from biotech studies to a livestock dealer between April 2001 and January 2003. Animals involved in this particular study were to have been destroyed by incineration or rendering to prevent their introduction into the human food supply.

The FDA said the pigs did not pose a public health risk, but that the incident, if confirmed, would represent a significant breach of the FDA requirements for this study, warranting strong action against the responsible parties.

“The researchers claim that these pigs, which were the offspring of transgenic animals, did not inherit the inserted genetic material from their parents – that is, they were not themselves transgenic. However, FDA cannot verify this assertion because the researchers did not conduct sufficient evaluation or keep sufficient records to assess whether the offspring inherited the inserted genetic material,” the FDA said in a statement.

Because the pigs were experimental animals, the FDA said it had not yet determined the safety or efficacy of the genetic material they contained but scientific evidence indicates that they would not present a health risk.

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“The genes were engineered so that the proteins would be produced primarily, if not exclusively, in the mammary glands of lactating sows. None of the pigs sent to slaughter are believed to have been old enough to lactate. Therefore, FDA does not believe that any product derived from these animals would have to be removed from commerce for public health reasons, and USDA concurs,” the FDA said.

The FDA added that in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture it was carrying out an investigation into the incident.