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CU Hails UN Standards on Genetically Engineered Food

Consumers Union hailed the adoption earlier of three sets of standards regarding safety of genetically modified (GM) food by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN food standards agency which is meeting in Rome this week.

Jean Halloran
Director of Consumer Policy Institute
Consumers Union, (914) 378-2457


(Yonkers, N.Y.), July 1, 2003 – Consumers Union hailed the adoption earlier today of three sets of standards regarding safety of genetically modified (GM) food by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the UN food standards agency which is meeting in Rome this week.

“The US government should be commended for supporting the Codex standard. But it needs to start upgrading the US system to meet the higher global norms,” said Michael Hansen, of Consumers Union, who is representing Consumers International (CI) on this issue at the Rome meeting. Consumers International includes more than 250 consumer organizations in 110 countries.
The United States prefers a system of voluntary consultations about safety, where the company developing the seed ultimately decides whether it is safe. Last month, FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford stated in Congressional testimony that FDA was withdrawing a proposal that would have required mandatory notification to the agency and submission of safety data before a GM food went on the market.

The Codex standard establishes a baseline which states that GMOs should be “as safe as the conventional counterpart.” In addition, they provide guidelines for assessing the safety of genetically engineered food plants, such as corn and soybeans, and of genetically engineered microorganisms, which are used in beer and cheese production. They also provide pages of detailed procedures for determining if a GM food contains new toxins or allergens, is altered nutritionally, or exhibits unexpected effects.

“These standards are a tremendous victory for consumers, for science, for good regulation and for common sense,” stated Julian Edwards, Director-General of Consumers International, which represents more than 250 organizations in 110 countries.
Codex standards are important because they can be used to settle trade disputes. The United States has just filed a challenge against the European Union at the World Trade Organization on genetically modified food.

“These documents provide a legal basis under World Trade Organization rules for the European Union’s strong safety regulations for genetically modified organisms,” said Hansen. “They explicitly state that a pre-market safety assessment should be undertaken.”

The documents also mention product tracing, which consumer groups say provides justification for the EU traceability system. This was one of the most hotly contested portions of the text, according to delegates who were involved. The final text was agreed to a year ago at a meeting of the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Food Derived from Biotechnology in Yokahama, Japan. “We spent over a day arguing about that footnote,” said Hansen, who attended the meetings. “Finding some compromise on product tracing–known in Europe as traceability–was critical. We wouldn’t have had a final text without it.”
The documents also address several other key controversies about GM food. They say that the transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods (peanuts, for example) should be “avoided” unless it can be proven that the transferred gene does not produce an allergen. “This is an important standard, because some people, especially children, have severe food allergies that can actually cause death,” said Hansen. The US Food and Drug Administration has said that it would allow such products, although it would require them to be labeled.

The documents also advise against using any antibiotic resistance marker genes in GMOs that create resistance to “clinically used” antibiotics, a practice that is also permitted by the Food and Drug Administration. “The problem of antibiotic resistance is large and growing–more and more diseases are resistant to the drugs we have available. This will give us extra insurance against the possibility that a marker gene could add to the problem,” stated Michael Hansen.

Consumers International sees the Codex standards as strengthening the position of countries like the European Union that are seeking to regulate GMO safety and to establish traceability systems. As of 2004, 35 countries encompassing half the world’s population, will require mandatory government safety assessments before genetically modified foods are allowed on the market. Besides the EU, these countries include China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Codex Alimentarius is a joint effort of the UN World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, its governing body, meets once every two years, and is meeting for the period June 30 to July 7, 2003 in Rome, Italy.

Standards adopted by the Codex Alimentarius are automatically considered to be based on science. Any country that adopts them is immune from challenge at the World Trade Organization. Codex generally seeks to adopt standards by consensus, although it can vote on standards as well.

Codex standards are developed by special committees that generally take many years to develop a final text. Food safety officials from dozens of countries, as well as official “observers” from industry and non-governmental organizations, participate in committee negotiations. When a committee reaches consensus on a text, it is forwarded to the Codex Alimentarius Commission for final adoption.

The three documents on GMOs were developed by a special Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology, which has been hosted by the government of Japan. Work on the three documents began in 2000, and was completed in March 2003. The documents address many contentious aspects of policy on GMOs.

Some of the important clauses in the documents just approved are as follows:
Principles for the Risk Assessment for Foods Derived from Modern Biotechnology
12. A pre-market safety assessment should be undertaken …and be performed on a case-by-case basis.
16. Risk management measures…should be proportional to the risk…taking into account other legitimate factors.
18. Risk managers should take into account the uncertainties identified…
19. Risk management measures may include, as appropriate, food labeling, conditions for marketing approvals and post-market monitoring.
21. Specific tools may be needed to facilitate … risk management measures. These may include …the tracing of products…
Footnote 9. It is recognized that there are other applications of product tracing. These applications should be consistent with the provisions of the SPS and TBT Agreements.
Guideline for the Conduct of Food Safety Assessment
of Foods Derived from Recombinant-DNA Plants

13. The concept of substantial equivalence is a key step…However it is not a safety assessment in itself; rather it represents the starting point….
14. Unintended effects…may also arise…Safety assessment should…reduce the possibility that a food derived from a recombinant-DNA plant would have an unexpected, adverse effect on human health.
21. The goal of each safety assessment is to provide assurance, in the light of the best available scientific knowledge, that the food does not cause harm when prepared, used and/or eaten according to its intended use. The expected endpoint of such as assessment will be a conclusion regarding whether the new food is a safe as the conventional counterpart taking into account dietary impact of any changes in nutritional content or value.
36. Information should be provided to ensure that genes coding for known toxins or anti-nutrients present in the donor organisms are not transferred…
43. The transfer of genes from commonly allergenic foods and from foods known to elicit gluten-sensitive enteropathy in sensitive individuals should be avoided unless it is documented that the transferred gene does not code for an allergen or for a protein involved in gluten-sensitive enteropathy.
58. Antibiotic resistance genes used in food production that encode resistance to clinically used antibiotics should not be present in foods.