Last week on British prime time television, the roving comedian Mark Thomas revealed that PPL Therapeutics is planning to rear genetically modified (GM) cows, designed to produce human alpha-lactalbumin, a protein found in human breast milk. Thomas, who has waged a one-man war against formula milk manufacturers, interviewed a member of the PPL group in the United States who proudly stated that the company had plans to produce the milk for commercial use. Meanwhile, a British counterpart talked down his American colleague's claims, saying that the 'humanised' cows milk was being planned for medical use only - largely with premature babies.
The vastly different responses to Mark Thomas' probing on either side of the Atlantic show how at odds American and British palates are when it comes to GM organisms. In Britain, following the emotional response to GM crops over the past year, the idea of GM food is bad enough. But genetically modified baby milk? No way! The fact that the high circulation daily, the Daily Mail, described the promised development as 'mutant milk for babies', can only have made matters worse.
Of course, all of this is rather a storm in a teacup, since the modified milk is not expected to be available for another three years. But, as with so much talk of future scientific developments (which made a particularly high profile appearance at the turn of the millennium), it seems to matter little that the technology in question is not yet - and may never be - available.
When PPL comes to launch the product on the market in a few years time, the company had better be prepared for an ear-bashing - not just from the anti-GM lobby, but from the increasing band of pro-breast feeding activists. If breast may not best after all, sparks are certainly going to fly!