GM food: Australian and New Zealand food regulator seeks views on new generation gene technology

By Gary Scattergood contact

- Last updated on GMT

FSANZ stresses it is not yet proposing any changes to GM laws. ©iStock
FSANZ stresses it is not yet proposing any changes to GM laws. ©iStock

Related tags: Dna, Gene

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is seeking views on how it regulates food products derived from new forms of gene technology, amid “ongoing scientific and public debate”.

The organisation has released a consultation paper, with CEO Mark Booth encouraging views to be submitted on new breeding techniques and how laws should apply to food derived from them.

“Since Standard 1.5.2 – Food produced using gene technology was first introduced in 1999, a range of new plant and animal breeding techniques (NBTs) have been developed,” Mr Booth said.

“We have been monitoring these techniques and working with experts to understand how foods produced using them should be regulated by food laws. At this stage, we are not proposing any changes to the Code. The review is being conducted to ensure that a broad range of issues has been considered before any decision is made to consider varying the Code.”

So far, all of the genetically modified (GM) approved foods in Australia New Zealand have used transgenesis - where plants have been modified by inserting new DNA. 

However, FSANZ states that NBTs encompass a divese new set of procedures that are being developed across plant and animal breeding.

“A degree of uncertainty exists about whether foods produced using NBTs are ‘food produced using gene technology’ because some of the new techniques can be used to make defined changes to the genome of an organism without permanently introducing any new DNA,” ​ stated FSANZ.

As a result, some foods produced using NBTs can be similar to foods that have been produced using conventional methods of plant and animal breeding that do not involve gene technology.

FSANZ is now seeking submission on how it should regulate these processes and products.

“There has been ongoing scientific and public debate about the nature of the risks associated with foods produced using NBTs and whether pre-market assessment and approval is appropriate for those foods,” ​it added.

“The issue being considered for this review is whether (and the extent to which) the food products of NBTs require pre-assessment for safety, before they can be sold as, or used as ingredients in, food.”

Complex considerations

There are three processes for which views are being sought.

Firstly, for food products where new pieces of DNA are inserted into the genome and remain in the organism from which food is obtained.

Secondly, where DNA is inserted into an initial organism but is not present in the final organism from which food is obtained. Therefore, gene technology does not alter the genome.

And thirdly, where changes are made to the existing genome, but no new DNA is present in the organism from which food is obtained

Booth added: “If, after considering all feedback, we decide to raise a proposal to change the Code, there would be further consultation with the community.”

This latest development comes amid heightened interest in the regulatory status of the new generation of gene technology.

We recently reported how Australia’s gene regulator Raj Bhula proposed reducing regulations​ around some gene editing techniques, which would result in some of them not being classed as "genetic modification".

"With gene editing you don't always have to use genetic material from another organism, it is just editing the [existing] material within the organism," ​Dr Bhula said.

"All of our regulatory frameworks and laws have been established based on people putting unrelated genetic material into another organism," ​she said.

"Whereas this process is just manipulation within the organism and not introducing anything foreign."

Dr Bhula’s recommendations are currently open for consultation. Before becoming law, they will need to be approved by commonwealth, state and federal governments

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