GM food needs definition
Current definitions of ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology’ in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code are no longer fit for purpose — they lack clarity, are outdated and do not reflect the diversity of techniques now in use — according to a new report by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
The ‘Review of food derived using new breeding techniques – Final Report’ was released today (10 December 2019) by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).
FSANZ CEO Mark Booth said the Final Report into food derived using new breeding techniques (NBTs) is the result of a significant amount of work by FSANZ, including extensive consultation with stakeholders and the community on whether the current definitions in the code for genetically modified foods are fit for purpose given recent advancements in genetic technologies.
“The review found that while there are diverse views in the community about the safety and regulation of food derived from NBTs, many agreed the current definitions are no longer fit for purpose and lack clarity,” Booth said.
According to Dr Heather Bray, Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Western Australia, the FSANZ report is not about whether GM food is safe or about changing the way we label GM foods, it is more about the way we define food produced by gene technology, ie, direct manipulation of DNA. She said the current definition no longer reflects the range of technologies that can be used.
“20 years ago, when these definitions were made, there was a big gap between different types of technology, and that gap no longer exists creating confusion for food producers and consumers,” Dr Bray said.
The report concludes that the only viable option is to amend the definitions. The report also found that there may be a case, based on risk, for some foods that use these NBTs to be excluded from the requirement for pre-market safety assessments. The report found there were very different views among those who submitted to the review about the acceptability and risk of GM foods and how best to regulate them.
“Based on these findings, FSANZ will prepare a proposal to amend the definitions in the code in the New Year,” Booth said.
“The proposal will look at options to strengthen current regulations and make it clearer which foods should be subject to pre-market safety assessment by FSANZ.
“As with all proposals to amend the code, FSANZ will consult with stakeholders and the community to ensure they can have their say.
“We understand this is an area where stakeholders have different views and concerns so communication and engagement will be a big part of our consultation process.”
According to Dr Bray: “Recent surveys have shown that awareness of what foods are currently modified with gene technology is low, and that views about the use of gene technology are diverse. Community engagement will be vital going forward.”
Professor Rachel Ankeny, Team Leader in the Food Values Research Group, agrees with the importance of community engagement but said: “Consumers often assume that regulation covers everything that might appear on labels, when in fact many claims are unregulated and basically are marketing techniques.
“Standards such as substantial equivalency to ‘conventionally produced’ products may not be acceptable to many people who are avoiding GM for reasons beyond perception of risk or similar.
“Hence revisiting the advantages and disadvantages of both process and non-process based definitions is an important part of these recommendations that could lead to more engagement and dialogue with the general public with regard to GM food,” Professor Ankeny said.
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