Albion Monitor /News

[Editor's note: On April 24, the USDA quietly announced that it is easing regulations on some types of bio-tech plants.

According to the press release, "The amended regulations will allow a broader application of existing simplified procedures for requests for movement or field testing of genetically engineered plants. They will also streamline the determination of nonregulated status for plant varieties that closely resemble other varieties that have already been through the determination process... For plants that are being evaluated in field tests, reporting requirements have been made more consistent. For example, for trees and other long lived plants field data reports will only need to be provided upon the conclusion of the trial."

For additional background on the topic of agricultural use of gene-spliced plants, see "Growing Concerns" in our previous issue.]

Australia, N Zealand Get Tough on Gene-Modified Food

by Wilson da Silva

Likely to be banned from sale by the end of the year
(AR) SYDNEY, Australia -- Genetically modified foods will soon be banned from sale in Australia and New Zealand under regulations described as the world's toughest, with all items first passing scientific analysis more akin to drug approvals than food, and requiring strict labelling.

Under final draft regulations, prepared by the bi-national Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA), genetically modified food products are likely to be banned from sale by the end of the year.

Companies seeking to introduce modified foods will have to apply to the ANZFA for approval, which in turn will subject each application to scientific scrutiny -- a process that could take as long as a year per application.

The requirements are onerous, and more like drug approval than that for food
The proposed regulations cover not just modified whole foods, but processed food containing any amount of genetically engineered elements. Even if a tomato is not transgenic (ie. has not had a foreign, non-tomato gene introduced), but has only had deletions of some of its natural genes, it will still need approval.

In the case of processed foods such as a frozen pizza, if it contains genetically-modified tomato paste comprising more than five per cent of the foodstuff, it would also need to be approved. But if the modified component is smaller (such as in sugar from genetically modified cane plants), the foodstuff will likely receive automatic approval.

Once each genetically modified item is approved, only foodstuffs containing more than five per cent genetically altered ingredients will have to be labelled.

The ANZFA says the regime is the most stringent so far proposed anywhere in the world. They are stricter than the Novel Food Directive being prepared by the European Union and more stringent on labelling than either the Europeans or the voluntary regime in the United States.

Observers agree. "They are saying that everything is guilty until proven innocent," said genetics ethicist Rosemary Robins of Australia's University of Melbourne. "This is in fact better that what is going on elsewhere in the world. Everything is going to be looked at on a case-by-case basis."

Under existing laws, there is nothing to prevent most genetically engineered foodstuffs from reaching the grocery shelves of Australia and New Zealand. However, a moratorium has been in place since 1993 when industry and government began discussing their introduction.

The ANZFA says the new regulations, which arose out of an earlier draft and take into account previous public and industry comment, are expected to be introduced as they stand. They do not require approval by the two parliaments.

The requirements are onerous, and more like drug approval than that for food: manufacturers seeking to introduce modified products will need to identify the donor and host organisms used, as well as pathogenicity, known toxin production, and previous uses in food and in production. Sources and full sequences of the recombinant DNA material used will also need to be identified, details provided of the characteristics of vectors and marker genes used, the inserted gene regulation strategies, as well as a description of genetic material either added, deleted or re-arranged.

If the novel foodstuffs pass such scrutiny, they must be labelled. This follows overwhelming consumer demand for labelling in a large 1994 study of public perceptions of genetically-engineered food in both countries.

Industry groups are unhappy with the proposed standard
Researchers have in the past few years used recombinant DNA techniques to develop new strains of common agricultural products, such as pest-resistant maize and potato, tomatoes that stay ripe longer and herbicide-resistant soya beans (allowing farmers to boost spraying of weed toxins without affecting the plants).

Consumer groups, particularly in Europe, have fought pitched battles with the regulators, arguing that the safety of such artificially- altered food has not been exhaustively established. They argue that there could be unexpected repercussions from even minor changes to genes.

Critics cite a case in 1989 when a Japanese food company used genetically-engineered bacteria to manufacture tryptophan, a food supplement. Without either testing or labelling, it was introduced into the market; it killed 37 people and permanently paralyzed another 1,500. Because the foods containing the modified tryptophan were not labelled, it took several months for authorities to identify the cause and withdraw the product.

Public pressure led to a ban of genetically modified maize in Austria in January, only a month after its approval for sale by a meeting of the European Union's council of ministers. In Britain, consumer groups persuaded the government to press supermarkets for a voluntary labelling scheme, and some retailers such as Tesco and Safeway have already demanded suppliers separate and label natural and engineered foods. Switzerland now requires genetically engineered food to be approved by health authorities, and labelling (saying food contains "genetic material") is compulsory.

The new ANZFA standard is to be reviewed by a meeting of Austral- ian and New Zealand health ministers in mid-1997, and are likely to be implemented by year's end.

Industry groups are unhappy with the proposed standard,

"Virtually everything on the supermarket shelf would have to be labelled. It's overkill," says Pam Saunders of the Australian Food Council.

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Albion Monitor April 29, 1997 (

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