Genetically modified foods: Our right to know

15 September 2011

Written by: KATE SCARFF

Visits to the local supermarket are usually done on autopilot; with shopping list in hand, and limited time before school pick-up, I dash down the aisles gathering the essentials: ingredients for family meals and the odd treat or three.

My purchases are swayed by price and options for free-range and organic.  But recently I have begun to wonder about genetically modified foods.  Are these in my supermarket and would I buy products that are not ‘natural’?

Genetically modified foods are born in a laboratory.  Scientists use a variety of techniques to isolate DNA with the gene of interest and transfer into another plant.  The altered DNA is called ‘recombinant DNA’.  The inserted gene protects the plant from diseases caused by insects or viruses or provides increased tolerance towards herbicides.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand is a bi-national government regulator, developing standards that protect the food industry.  The agency is responsible for evaluating applications for GM foods to be sold in Australia and New Zealand.  Safety is assessed by comparing the GM food to its ‘conventional counterpart’ and identifying new/altered ‘hazards’.  Depending on the nature of any differences between the GM food and the comparator, nutritional, toxicological or immunological testing may be required.

My review of the list of applications to FSANZ for approval to sell new food products found 40 applications for GM foods and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before 30 June 2010.  With the exception of one withdrawal, all GM food/GMO applications were approved.

Agricultural company Monsanto withdrew its application for a herbicide-tolerant wheat in 2004.  This is interesting considering the recent controversy over GM wheat trials in Australia and the destruction of GM wheat trial plantations back in July.

Source: Photobucket

The list of GM foods currently allowed in Australia includes genetically modified canola, corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet, rice, potato and lucerne.  Genetically modified organisms have also been approved as processing aids in baking (e.g. yeasts) and cheese manufacturing industries.

Australia has mandatory labelling laws for GM foods.  The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 1.5.2 – Food Produced Using Gene Technology regulates the conditions for sale of genetically modified food other than additives and processing aids.  The Schedule contained within Standard 1.5.2 lists GM food lines that may be sold or used in the manufacture of food products.

Foods that are exempt from labelling include: products derived from animals that are fed GM grain, highly refined food where the recombinant DNA/protein has been removed, and GM foods prepared for immediate consumption from takeaway food outlets, vending machines, restaurants or caterers.

The reasons for these exemptions are not clear.  According to FSANZ, GM foods are labelled so consumers can make an informed decision about their food purchases.  The exemptions are not justified in this case.

But change is happening.  An independent review of food labelling law and policy commissioned by the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council was completed in January.  The council put forward 61 recommendations – six pertain to GM foods.  These include food outlets using menu boards to declare use of GM foods and effective monitoring of labelling regulations.

No recommendations were put forward regarding food products from animals fed GM grain.  According to the Bureau of Rural Sciences, GM feed crops used in Australian cattle feedlots include cotton, corn and soybean but there are no requirements for meat or milk from these animals to be labelled ‘genetically modified’.

FSANZ has adopted the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) position that the incorporation of fragments of recombinant DNA or protein from GM feeds into animal products is extremely unlikely.  According to a 2003 OECD report, ‘Considerations for the safety assessment of animal feedstuffs derived from genetically modified plants‘, no recombinant DNA from GM feed ‘has been detected in any animal product examined to date’.

The Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council response to the recommendations is expected by December 2011.

A review of the scientific literature shows no difference between GM crops and conventional crops with regards to human health and environmental safety.  According to the European Commission’s 2010 report on GMOs published last year: ‘The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.’

So yes, GM technology has entered our food supply – GM products are in our supermarkets and restaurants.  But with the scientific evidence showing no greater risk for consumption of GM foods compared to conventional crops, I admit I am not concerned about GM foods in the food supply.

But consumers deserve the right to know what foods contain GM products so they can make an informed choice.  Current labelling requirements for GM foods make the supermarket a minefield for the discerning shopper to navigate their way around GM food products.   An unwanted brain teaser to add to the chore of the weekly grocery shop.

Kate Scarff is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is part of upstart‘s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @katescarff