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Press Release 00/16


Chiba, Japan/Rome, Italy - 14 March 2000 -- As controversy continues to swirl around genetically modified foods, the joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission's Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology met for the first time "to develop standards, guidelines, or other principles, where appropriate," for these products, the two UN agencies announced today.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission set up the Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force last year giving it a four-year mandate. Its members include government representatives from Codex Alimentarius member countries, scientists, consumer and industry organizations and international non-governmental organizations. The objectives of the Task Force are "to develop standards, guidelines or recommendations, as appropriate, for foods derived from biotechnology or traits introduced into foods by biotechnology, on the basis of scientific evidence, risk analysis and having regard, where appropriate, to other legitimate factors relevant to the health of consumers and the promotion of fair trade practices."

Foods derived from biotechnology have led to safety concerns for human and animal health and the environment. Concerns for human health include the risks of transferring toxins from one life form to another, of creating new toxins, or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another, which could result in unexpected allergic reactions. There are also concerns about the effects that biotechnology products could have on farm animals.

In analyzing the risk presented by various biotech foods, the Task Force will take full account of work carried out by national authorities, FAO, WHO and other international organizations. In particular, it will consider the concept of "substantial equivalence," established by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1993. Substantial equivalence has been widely accepted as the most practical approach to determining food safety. It imbodies the idea that "existing organisms used as food, or as a source of a food, can be used as the basis for comparison when assessing the safety of human consumption of a food or food component that has been modified or is new."

According to Dr. Alan Randell, the Secretary of the Task Force, "Substantial equivalence is a very powerful tool for identifying differences and subjecting them to analysis. Nevertheless, it has been subject to a lot of criticism from various sectors. The Task Force will need to look at different ways of developing and applying the concept of substantial equivalence and reviewing other methods of science-based risk assessment."

The Task Force is working toward a Codex Alimentarius Commission agreement that will supplement the Cartagena Protocol, the recently signed UN Protocol on Biosafety, which excludes in principal the regulation of living modified organisms intended for food, feed or food processing. The Cartagena Protocol calls for living modified organisms (LMOs) that are intended for food, feed or processing to be identified when they are traded across international borders. However, during the negotiations that led up to the Protocol, it was recognized that further consideration would have to be given to developing standards for identification, handling, packaging and transporting biotech products in consultation with other international bodies. The Task Force will contribute significantly to this process. The Task Force will not evaluate individual products created by biotechnology, but will guide the work on assessing the risks and benefits of biotech products.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was formed in 1962 to implement the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. Codex is an intergovernmental statutory body with a 165-country membership. Its purpose is to protect the health of consumers, to ensure fair practices in food trade and to promote coordination of all food standards work undertaken by international governmental and non-governmental organizations.

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For further Information Contact:

John Riddle
Media Relations
Telephone: (39) 06 5705-3259

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