GM foods report calls for improvements to safety assessment method

February 6, 2002

Brussels, 05 February 2002

A report into the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods, published by the UK's Royal Society on 4 February, has called for improvements to safety assessments before more foods made from GM plants are given the all-clear for human consumption.

The report concludes that there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM ingredients that are currently available, nor that there is any reason to believe that genetic modification inherently makes foods less safe than those produced traditionally. The report also says that the use of DNA from viruses in the genetic modification of plants poses little risk to human health.

It recommends, however, that the method currently used for comparing GM foods with their traditional counterparts, known as the principle of 'substantial equivalence,' should be made clearer and more objective. It also says the process should be harmonised across the 15 Member States of the EU.

The report also calls for the tightening of regulations for all new foods, particularly baby food, and for an extension of allergy testing to include material that is inhaled as well as eaten. The report highlights the particular vulnerability of babies to changes in their diet, and recommends a re-examination of both UK and EU law to ensure rigorous testing in the event that GM ingredients are one day used in infant formula foods.

Professor Jim Smith, who chaired the working group that produced the report, said: 'We have looked at all the available research, and found nothing to suggest that the process of genetic modification makes potential foodstuffs inherently unsafe. However, we fully support the public's right to know that all new foods, regardless of whether they contain GM ingredients, are subjected to rigorous safety and nutritional checks.'

He added that 'the rather piecemeal approach to the regulation of GM foods in the UK, and the EU in general, means that there may be some important gaps and inconsistencies. It is obvious that consumers want their food to be safeguarded by rules that are rigorous enough to prevent any loopholes. But the legislation must not be so restrictive that it removes any incentive for introducing new foods that are potentially beneficial to society.'

Derek Burke, who chaired the UK's food safety advisory committee for 9 years, said the system currently used to assess GM plants 'is a very good starting point for asking questions,' adding that 'science progresses and as we learn more we ask tighter questions.'

Speaking to CORDIS News, Professor Smith praised research into GM plants carried out under the EU's Fifth Framework programme for research (FP5) and said he hoped to see the good work continue in the next Framework programme, FP6.

The working group considered the results of research made available since 1998, as well as evidence submitted by food regulators, biotechnology companies and non-governmental organisations.

The publication of the Royal Society report follows the announcement by the UK government of 44 sites in England and Scotland which are to be used for the remaining three years of farm trials of GM oilseed rape and beet. The trails are expected to begin in March this year, weather and soil conditions permitting. The UK Department for the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) said that the seeds to be planted have undergone rigorous safety tests and the crops will be separated from conventional produce to minimise the risk of cross-contamination.

For further information on the results of EC-funded research on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), please consult the following web address: ity-of-life/gmo

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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