News ‘Outdated’ genetically modified food labels are a potential health risk

‘Outdated’ genetically modified food labels are a potential health risk

Labelling of GM foods means unsafe products may slip through. Photo: Getty
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The definitions of genetically modified food are outdated, confusing and potentially unsafe, a landmark report has found.

The report, compiled by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), reviewed the definitions used to categorise genetically modified (GM) foods and found “there may be potential health and safety risks to the community” if they’re not updated.

While techniques for GM – known as new breeding advancements (NBT’s) – have grown at a rapid pace, the code for labelling has not been updated in 20 years.

FSANZ CEO Mark Booth said the current definitions needed to be updated.

“The review found that while there are diverse views in the community about the safety and regulation of food derived from NBTs, many agreed the current definitions are no longer fit for purpose and lack clarity,” Mr Booth said.

“Based on these findings, FSANZ will prepare a proposal to amend the definitions in the code in the new year.

“The proposal will look at options to strengthen current regulations and make it clearer which foods should be subject to pre-market safety assessment by FSANZ.”

The current labelling code has led to consumer confusion  – as canola oil made from GM canola or beer brewed using syrup from GM corn does not have to be declared to consumers.

Industry groups have historically supported the labelling process but it has meant Australians who wish to avoid GM products have been left frustrated.

Beer and rock enthusiasts on Kangaroo Island have teamed up to make a "shale ale".
Beer brewed using GM syrup does not have to be labelled. Photo: AAP

The confusion has also affected GM producers who may not know if their product needs to be checked by FSANZ, the report said.

“There may be potential health and safety risks to the community if, as a result of the uncertainty, some developers incorrectly believed their product did not require pre-market approval,” it read.

University of Western Australia science communication lecturer Heather Bray said we needed to be clear that the NBTs referenced by the report weren’t unsafe.

“The FSANZ report about new breeding techniques is not about whether food produced with new breeding techniques or GM is safe, or about changing the way we label GM foods,” Dr Bray said.

“Twenty years ago, when these definitions were made, there was a big gap between different types of technology. That gap no longer exists, creating confusion for food producers and consumers.

“Recent surveys have shown that awareness of what foods are currently modified with gene technology is low, and that views about the use of gene technology are diverse.”

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