A national surveillance unit to monitor effects of genetically modified and other novel foods on human health could be on the cards.
The unit is in the earliest stages of discussions by the Medical Research Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. It follows recommendations by Sir Robert May, the UK's chief scientist, and Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, who last week published a report on the health implications of genetically modified foods.
The report from the government's top scientists says there is "no current evidence to suggest GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful".
They say they are reassured by the "precautionary nature" of the current procedures. However, they add: "Nothing can be absolutely certain in a field of rapid scientific and technological development."
Already Pounds 10 million of government money is being put into GM- oriented research, much of which is carried out at universities. About Pounds 2 million of this is from MAFF and Pounds 9.2 million is from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for research of direct relevance to GM foods.
This includes a handful of research programmes looking at the possibilities of gene transfer from GM plants to bacteria in the gut. One such research project is under way at Newcastle University, where biologist Harry Gilbert is looking, initially in the lab, to quantify the probability of gene transfer from GM plants to bacteria present in the gut. He hopes to extend his research to human volunteers in the next 18 months.
Concern has already been expressed that antiobiotic resistance genes might be transferred from GM organisms to bacteria, including those responsible for diseases such as meningitis. Professor Donaldson and Sir Robert's report notes such a transfer is "very unlikely, but cannot be ruled out".