Current definitions of ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology’ in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code are not are no longer fit for purpose, according to a report by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) published today.
The definitions lack clarity, are outdated, and do not reflect the diversity of techniques now in use, the report says.
It concludes that the only viable option is to amend the definitions.
The report finds there may be a case, based on risk, for some foods that use these new breeding techniques to be excluded from the requirement for pre-market safety assessments.
It also says there are are different views among those who submitted to the review about the acceptability and risk of GM foods and how best to regulate them.
Releasing the Final Report on the review of food derived using new breeding techniques (NBTs), FSANZ chief executive Mark Booth said it 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.
“Based on these findings, FSANZ will prepare a proposal to amend the definitions in the Code in the New Year.
“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.
“I’d like to thank all of the stakeholders who contributed to the final review and its recommendations,” Mr Booth said.
Dr Heather Bray, a Lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Western Australia, researches community attitudes to the role of science and technology in food production, in particular genetically-modified crops. She commented:
“The FSANZ report about new breeding techniques is not about whether food produced with new breeding techniques or GM is safe or about changing the way we label GM foods.
“FSANZ have determined that the way we defined food produced by gene technology, i.e. direct manipulation of DNA, no longer reflects the range of technologies that can be used.
“Twenty 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.
“Now that they have decided that the current definitions no longer work, FSANZ are committed to starting a new process to revise the definitions to give more clarity to what is and isn’t regulated.
“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.”
Declared conflicts of interest: Heather is not currently receiving any research or other funding from any organisation involved in gene technology. However, she has been employed in research centres where gene technology is used in food crops (Molecular Plant Breeding Cooperative Research Centre and Waite Research Institute from 2003 to 2014) where she developed community engagement programs about gene technology in food and agriculture.
Professor Rachel Ankeny is Team Leader in the Food Values Research Group, and Deputy Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide. She commented:
“The general public has diverse views on what makes food good and safe, or bad and risky, among other values associated with food choices.
“The new FSANZ recommendations on food labelling represent a positive step forward, in that a review was overdue on approaches to foods produced using a range of gene technologies and other breeding techniques given the changing science and diverse market trends in play.
“However, as our research at the Food Values Research Group at Adelaide has revealed, labels have their limits, and what is most important will be engaging with the public about what any new labelling regime will capture and what is not intended to be covered by it.
“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.”
Declared conflicts of interest: Rachel has declared the following potential conflicts of interest: current member of the GM Crop Advisory Committee for the Government of South Australia; past funding received from Grain Growers Australia and the Australian Research Council for research relating to GM; past member of the Commonwealth Office of the Gene Technology Regulator’s Gene Ethics and Community Consultative Committee