At the Pinduoduo Food Systems Forum hosted by China’s agriculture and grocery retail platform Pinduoduo, experts from the Future Ready Food Safety Hub, University of Cape Town, and Dentons Law Offices discussed the current regulatory landscape of novel foods.
The panel was moderated by Xin Yi Lim, Pinduoduo’s executive director of sustainability and agricultural impact.
Currently, there are no Codex standards for novel foods. Although, Singapore was the first worldwide to grant regulatory approval for cell-based chicken as a food ingredient last year.
This lack of standards and harmonisation add to the complexity of market access.
However, the panellists agreed that communication was key to accelerate the regulatory landscape for novel foods.
Dr Ben Smith, director at the Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH), said: “A lot of this new technology is being done by the scientists in the lab. But the regulators and risk assessors, they are not scientists and need to be educated to better understand the new technology. This is often the bottleneck in regulations.”
Building confidence in consumers
Consumer attitudes around food and food safety are always changing, which may also hinder regulatory approval and market access of novel foods.
According to Smith, most of these changing attitudes are influenced by confidence and trust in the regulatory system.
“(I think) here in Singapore, we have strong trust in our regulatory system, and consumers tend to be confident that the right things are being done to bring new products to market and so there's a lot of enthusiasm and interest.”
He explained a key part in having this confidence and trust was communicating to consumers, ensuring that they understand the technologies used in cell-based foods.
Wilfred Feng, senior counsel, at Dentons Law Offices stressed the importance of public consultations, noting this was a relatively recent development in markets such as China.
For scientists and researchers behind innovations, it is crucial they consider not only regulatory, but how consumers would perceive the product or technology, according to Smith.
One classic example is Golden Rice, a genetically engineered rice, fortified with vitamin A. While it was intended to reduce vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, it has suffered from widespread misinformation around negative health impacts.
Smith said it was key to start building safety and regulatory approval requirements into the innovation process, and not just on the finished product.
According to Professor Jennifer Thomson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cape Town, this remains the case with GMO foods.
“GMO foods need science-based regulations, and good communication with farmers, public, regulators, politicians to address fears,” she said in her presentation.
She added that the benefits of GMO foods far outweigh potential drawbacks, and while success is not instantaneous, government support is necessary for regulations and research, which impacts commercialisation.
Feng added: “I do not think that consumers are afraid of new things, it’s whether they can see the value to them,” and cited how innovations such as nano technology or quantum technology tend to be perceived in a positive light, while GMO is perceived as something bad.