FSANZ announced earlier this year that it was seeking public comment to changing several aspects of the regulations governing genetically modified (GM) foods in the region, particularly the definitions of ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology’, which essentially determine which food products are classified as GM foods in these countries.
GM foods are subjected to a separate pre-market safety assessment and are required to be specifically listed in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.
According to FSANZ interim CEO Dr Sandra Cuthbert, the current definitions of these two items are ‘outdated’ and ‘lack clarity’, and also carry the added issue of not capturing new and emerging genetic technologies such as new breeding techniques (NBTs).
“[For instance], some NBT foods have the same characteristics as conventional foods, which have a long history of safe use, and can therefore be regulated in a way that matches the lower risk they pose,” said Dr Cuthbert via a formal statement.
“FSANZ intends to update these definitions to make them clearer and better able to accommodate food produced by existing, emerging and future genetic technologies.
“Our proposed approach would mean that an NBT food equivalent in its characteristics and risk to conventional food is not considered GM food for Code purposes, [whereas] GM foods would continue to require pre-market safety assessment and approval under revised definitions, with approved GM food subject to mandatory labelling.”
The local food industry has met this proposal with a warm welcome, saying that this was in essence preparing the food sector for the future.
“FSANZ deals primarily with the use of GM-derived substances in the food supply so the future of GM foods in New Zealand and Australia is codified for the future,” New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC) Chief Executive Katherine Rich told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“The current proposals are intended to reflect developments made in the area over the past decade and to anticipate the continuing developments in relation to food for at least some future period of time - NZFGC is supportive of New Zealand and Australia remaining abreast of such developments and facilitating imports in the region.”
Although various parties, particularly non-governmental environmental organisations, dispute GM for its potential impacts on the environment and public health, Rich stressed that all such decisions are made based on scientific and technological knowledge and adopting the new regulatory changes was unlikely to adversely affect the food sector.
“We don’t believe there would be any negative impact on the food industry if these regulations were passed,” she said.
“As with conventional foods and GM foods currently, manufacturers and importers make decisions on the foods produced, imported, and sold, based on a wide range of factors and this will also be the case for foods derived from NBTs.
“There is no lessening of the provisions around GM [so] the governing rules are not becoming less strict - These proposals deal with the addition of new breeding techniques and technological advances in breeding that are not GM as currently understood but nonetheless technology based [and] NZFGC supports innovation and technological development in the food sector.”
FSANZ is accepting public comments for this amendment through December 2021. NZFGC will also be submitting formal comment in support of this amendment.
FSANZ has also stressed that this amendment applies to the regulation of GM foods only, and does not extend to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are regulated separately and would require separate regulatory assessment and approval by the Gene Technology Regulator in Australia and the Environmental Protection Authority in New Zealand.
GM in other countries
FSANZ’s attitude towards GM technology thus far has been one of open-mindedness and acceptance, as can be clearly seen in its many proposals to allow the sale of various GM foods in the region – seven such proposals were made between 2020 and 2021, even through the COVID-19 pandemic, and involved products made from GM corn, soybeans, potatoes and more.
The agency was also one of the first food safety authorities worldwide to have given food safety certification to Philippines’ Golden Rice, arguably one of the most well-known GM crops of all currently.
The Philippines Department of Agriculture often uses this certification to assure naysayers of the rice’s safety credentials. The South East Asian nation has already granted regulatory approval to propagate Golden Rice commercially, and is expected to hit local markets in 2023.
Several other markets in Asia such as Japan also appear to be leaning in favour of GM – a 2021 Japanese government study done on GM crops found no significant impact on surrounding crops or biodiversity, which is precisely what anti-GM groups use to make their arguments.
A 2019 expert government panel also announced that certain GM foods using gene-editing technology to produce would be allowed to go on sale in Japan, and as a whole the government has been expending a large amount of effort to explain GM foods and technologies to the public.