Toxic L-tryptophan: Shedding Light on a Mysterious Epidemic—Introduction

Toxic L-tryptophan: Shedding Light on a Mysterious Epidemic—Introduction

by William E. Crist

Was Genetic Engineering the Cause of Contaminated
L-tryptophan and the EMS Epidemic?

Knowing my long-standing interest in food purity issues, a friend in California suggested in 1996 that I look into the cause of the tragic eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) epidemic that had struck seven years earlier. The outbreak was traced to consumption of L-tryptophan food supplements produced by a Japanese company using genetically engineered (GE) bacteria. Exactly what role biotechnology played in the contamination of the supplement was hotly debated. After thousands of hours of self-sponsored research, I believe I can shed some light on that issue.

I began by interviewing representatives of all the interested parties, including many EMS patients, scientists, attorneys involved in the litigations, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). I was generally met with courtesy and cooperation. I discovered sincere differences of opinion among scientists about the possible causes of the contamination that led to the EMS epidemic, and some interesting facts about biotechnology. My follow-up questions — particularly to government agencies about its own findings and about the "problem with the purification process" — generated obvious discomfort. Suddenly, agency personnel to whom I had spoken were "out of the country," would not reply to my emails and/or letters, and in one instance I was told that a CDC spokesperson refused to talk to me and had "referred the matter to their attorney."

Similarly, my several Freedom of Information Act requests were essentially denied, sending me irrelevant information or saying the information requested was proprietary, i.e., trade secret of the manufacturer. Later, I learned from an attorney that the proprietary period had expired, so again I made an FOIA request for specific agency reports. Again I came to a stonewall. An FOIA spokesperson told me that the authors of the reports were no longer with the agency. I listed at least four scientists who were still there, but the FOIA representative simply repeated they were "no longer there" — as if unable to deviate from following a script. This left me with the distinct feeling that FOIA requests are a waste of time on closely guarded issues unless you are a major media journalist or otherwise have the clout to back them up. No matter, in this case, that scores had died from EMS and thousands had been left in various degrees of debility.

I quickly realized that the government agencies were caught between two conflicting mandates: both regulating and promoting biotechnology — and that the latter seemed to have the higher priority.

This review covers both the results of my research and the process of getting to those results. The FDA's and CDC's sudden stonewalling made my work more difficult than it needed to be — and made it clear that they preferred to leave all this "a mystery" rather than to investigate seriously all of the factors that led to the epidemic. I invite a careful reading of the facts that I was able to extract from the parts of the L-tryptophan mess that they weren't able to completely sweep under the carpet.

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© Copyright 2005 William E. Crist. All Rights Reserved

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