New Codex Rules Will Require Slightly More US Regulation of GE Foods

New Codex Rules Will Require Slightly More US Regulation of GE Foods
GM draft may be tightened

July 02, 2001 03:01 PM
Geneva, Switzerland

Draft international safety guidelines for genetically modified foods, due to
be approved this week, will require a radical tightening of US safety
assessment procedures if genetically modified crops from the US are to have
open access to the main export markets.

The draft guidelines, which set out basic principles governing risk and
safety assessments for genetically modified (GM) foods, are expected to be
adopted at this week's meeting in Geneva of the Codex Alimentarius
Commission (Codex), the 165-member world body that sets international food
safety standards.

Norms set by Codex, which is run jointly by the World Health Organisation
(WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), are
used as benchmarks in World Trade Organisation disputes to help determine
whether a country's safety standards represent a disguised barrier to trade.

Failure by the US to adopt Codex standards would make it hard for Washington
to challenge action by other WTO members to bar or restrict US exports of GM
crops. Conversely, the use of Codex standards would help the US attack trade
curbs that lack a scientific justification as well as reassuring consumers
that GM foods are safe.

The absence of international norms, coupled with the political sensitivity
of the food safety issue in Europe, have been key factors inhibiting
Washington from issuing a WTO challenge to the European Union's 1999
moratorium on approval of GM crops.

The Codex guidelines would require the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
to modify its policy in two main ways. First, they specify that all GM foods
should be subject to a safety assessment before they are launched on the
market, as they are in the EU.

The FDA operates a system of voluntary pre-market notifications but, in
response to consumer concerns, it proposed new regulations in February to
make pre-market notification mandatory.

Second, the guidelines state that the use of the principle of "substantial
equivalence" - looking at whether genetically modified foods are broadly the
same as their non-GM equivalents - does not amount to a safety assessment
"in itself", and must be supplemented by specific tests. The FDA currently
uses the "substantial equivalence" principle to decide whether extra tests
are needed.

Jorgen Schlundt, head of WHO's food safety programme, says it is not enough
to look at whether the genetic structure is similar. To ensure there are no
unintended side-effects "you need to see if the introduced gene has switched
on some existing genes or switched others off", he said. While there is no
evidence that GM foods are unsafe it is important to minimise the risk of
"unexpected outcomes".

In April the WHO and FAO published recommendations on reducing the risk of
allergic reactions to GM ingredients - the main perceived health risk - by
trying to ensure known allergens are not transplanted into new foods. These
recommendations are expected to find their way into Codex standards by 2003.

The GM corn StarLink, developed by Aventis CropScience, which was approved
only for animal feed but found its way into some food products consumed by
humans, has been linked to several complaints alleging allergic reactions,
some of them life-threatening.

WHO officials said they were optimistic that the draft guidelines would be
adopted this week.

But they warned that subsequent discussions over such issues as labelling of
GM foods and traceability of GM ingredients could prove much more

In February the European Parliament approved tough new legislation requiring
labelling of GM foods and monitoring of GM ingredients through the food
chain, neither of which is deemed necessary by the US.

Copyright © 2001 Financial Times

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