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Task Force analyses the risks of foods derived from biotechnology


Do foods derived from biotechnology pose a threat to human health? How can their potential risks be properly analysed? These are some of the questions facing members of the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission's Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods derived from Biotechnology when they hold their first session, in Chiba, Japan, 14-17 March.

Established in 1999 during the 23rd session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the task force, like other Codex committees, is made up of government delegates, scientists and consumer and industry representatives. The primary function of the task force, which has a four-year mandate, is "to develop standards, guidelines, or other principles, where appropriate, on foods derived from biotechnology".

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Safety issues related to foods derived from biotechnology include the risk of inadvertently introducing allergens into foods, causing unexpected allergic reactions. "However, the potential risks of foods derived from biotechnology should not overshadow their potential public health benefits," says Hartwig de Haen, Assistant Director-General of FAO's Economic and Social Department. "Biotechnology holds out the possibility of breeding new crop varieties containing greater amounts of vitamins and other nutrients."

Risk analysis is at the heart of all the Codex Alimentarius Commission's activities. The Commission has agreed that risk analysis has three components: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. For foods derived from biotechnology,"substantial equivalence" is a concept that has become central to the process of risk assessment. It was established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the early 1990s. The concept is based on the idea that if a new food or food component can be demonstrated to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it can be treated in the same manner with respect to safety.

"Substantial equivalence is a very powerful tool for identifying differences and subjecting them to analysis," said Dr Alan Randell, Secretary of the Task Force. "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 for science-based risk assessment."

The task force will also look at possible risk management procedures for foods derived from biotechnology. Risk management involves weighing different policy alternatives once risks have been assessed, and it often constitutes the most politically sensitive element of risk analysis. The use of precaution represents one approach to risk management. Under a precautionary approach, governments can take measures to protect public health in cases where risks to health have been identified but the risk assessment is inconclusive or incomplete.

The recently signed UN Protocol on Biosafety (widely known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety) explicitly adopted a precautionary approach to risk management. In reviewing different methods of risk management for foods derived from biotechnology, the task force will take into account the safety measures outlined by the Protocol. The Cartagena Protocol focuses primarily on living modified organisms (LMOs) intended to be introduced into the environment , such as seeds, live animals and microorganisms. But it also contains provisions for LMOs intended for use as food, animal feed or processing. The Protocol stipulates that LMOS intended for food, feed or processing must be identified as such when they cross national boundaries. Identifying and labelling foods as having been derived from biotechnology is one approach to risk management. The Protocol recognizes the need for greater consultation with international bodies (such as the Codex Alimentarius Commission) in developing standards for the identification and labelling of foods derived from biotechnology

The task force's goal is to establish an internationally recognized system for food safety assessment in the area of biotechnology - a system that will both protect the health of consumers and promote fair trade practices. In addition, the task force will work towards ensuring that the standards, guidelines and principles incorporated in multilateral environmental treaties, such as the Biosafety Protocol, and those in multilateral trade agreements, such as the World Trade Organization's Uruguay Round Agreements, are mutually supportive.

March 14 2000

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