Genetically Manipulated Food News

17 April 1997

Table of Contents

Codex Committee meeting in Ottawa April 15-18 1997
Proposal to Codex by Australian GeneEthics Network
News from Europe

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Codex Committee meeting in Ottawa April 15-18 1997

Distinguished scientists Dr. John Fagan and Dr. Joe Cummins warn that the Codex Committee meeting in Ottawa April 15-18 to decide about food labelling has been hijacked by the biotech industry. "The safety of consumers is being sacrificed for biotech profit," states Dr. Fagan.

Codex has been designated by the World Trade Organization as the officially recognized rule -- making body for international trade issues related to food. Under GATT, Codex decisions have the clout of international law.

"The decisions of Codex have great impact on the import and export of food and thus on the health of Canadians and consumers worldwide," he said. "Yet, the representatives that Canada and other nations send to Codex to make these decisions are unanswerable to consumers. At the Codex meetings themselves, these government representatives are highly vulnerable to influence peddling by biotech or other industry representatives. These manipulations result in decisions that benefit profit and production, not health and nutrition."

For instance, according to Joe Cummins, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Western Ontario, Canada is represented at Codex by the Agriculture Canada, which has taken at least $36 million from multinational companies to do research in Canada that would benefit the companies.

"In reality the research is of little importance and the money is paid to facilitate acceptance by the Canadian government of genetically engineered crops and unsafe chemical pesticides,"

states Dr. Cummins.

"The Ministry of Agriculture is required to regulate gene tinkered crops and chemical pesticides yet it is taking substantive money to promote these same products. It is no wonder that the Canadian government is allowing these genetically engineered crops on the market."

Dr. Cummins also explained that Agriculture Canada has initiated a program termed "Agri-Food R&D Matching Investment Initiative," which is called "A Collaborative Project." This scheme allows Agriculture Canada to accept matching funds from industry for government research designed to facilitate use of new pesticides and genetically engineered crops developed by multinational companies. "As Agriculture Canada is responsible for regulating pesticides and genetically engineered crops, this is an another obvious conflict of interest," said Dr. Cummins.

In the area of genetic engineering, Dr. Fagan explained that at its meeting in Ottawa, Codex is formulating regulations that will allow thousands of genetically engineered foods on the world market, unlabelled and mixed in with other foods. However, scientists and doctors worldwide are concerned about the unknown and untested long-term side-effects of these foods.

"New toxins, allergies, and diseases are already being seen from genetically engineered products, and more such side-effects are predicted," said Dr. Fagan "Moreover, polls carried out by the biotech industry itself indicates that 93% of North Americans want genetically engineered foods to be labelled."

Yet, once Codex approves these regulations, these experimental products will enter the food market unlabelled. In fact, the WTO will apply trade sanctions that severely penalize any nation that decides to require higher standards for importation. "Impending Codex decisions concerning genetically engineered foods could put the health of the entire world population at stake," cautions Dr. Fagan.

John Fagan, PhD, a Cornell-trained molecular biologist, has 23 years experience in leading edge genetic engineering research, including 7 years at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC. He is currently on an international tour sponsored by the Natural Law Party, speaking about the dangers of genetically engineered foods. Dr. Fagan was featured last month on CNN and in USA Today. He is in Ottawa to attend the Codex meetings.

Joe Cummins, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Genetic University of Western Ontario. He has taught advanced genetics, human genetics , microbial genetics and molecular genetics for over 23 years. Dr. Cummins had published over one hundred refereed scientific papers and over 100 popular articles in genetics. He has also participated in reviews of Canadian regulations in biotechnology and has previously been a delegate to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling.

Contact: Wayne Foster Tel. (613) 235-2181 or Ruby Finkelstein Tel. (613) 565-1596 or 565-8517

Proposal to Codex by Australian GeneEthics Network

Dear Food Friends,

Here is our submission to delegates to the Codex Alimentarius meeting in Ottawa next week. The draft standard on GE Food Labelling is a weak rewrite of the US proposal rejected last year.

The meeting is important but only the beginning of a long process so it is still worth making submissions to your national Codex Contact Point.

If you like it, please use.



Why All Genetically Engineered Food Organisms and Products Must be Labeled

A Response to the Official CODEX Document

For the Codex Committee on Food Labelling 25th Session, Ottawa, Canada, 15-18 April 1997

General Conclusions

Free markets and free trade, advocated by most governments and industries, depend on all relevant information being freely and fairly available to all parties in the market, especially at the point of sale to all buyers of products and services.

All genetically engineered food organisms and food products should be labelled with the process of production, particularly until a history of safe and reliable use has been established. A history of safe use is a necessary prerequisite for the inclusion of conventional foods in the food supply and it must also apply to novel foods. Safety must be established before commercialisation, including through premarket human testing.

The concept of "substantial equivalence" should not be used in standards on food assessment or labelling as it lacks scientific or operational precision and cannot be objectively applied. It assumes the safety of novel foods, even in the absence of credible evidence.

"Substantial equivalence" is also unacceptable because it is used to deny food buyers access to information that would enable them to make their own food choices, to exercise precaution and minimise their own risks, and choose a balanced diet suited to their personal needs and values.

"Substantial equivalence" is inconsistent with industry justifications for life patents. In patent claims, industry says genetically engineered products are novel, non-obvious and useful - different from anything that existed before. But when arguing for minimal regulatory assessments and labelling, they also claim such foods are the same as existing products. They cannot have it both ways.

The labelling rules on irradiated and organic foods, which include process information, provide compelling precedents for labelling all foods manufactured using new production processes, including genetically engineered foods.

Our General Comments

We offer the following comments on the Codex Recommendations document:


3. The right to know is soundly based on the need for modern economic systems to be efficient, and can be refined to form a solid basis for decision-making on appropriate labelling.

All parties to commercial transactions must have full and unfettered access to information so the market can produce optimum outcomes for them and society at large. Governments committed to international free trade in food must ensure that markets are as free as possible by ensuring that all relevant information is available.

The right to know is the corollary of the seller's responsibility to be open, honest and to not misrepresent products. It offers a genuine means for empowering people to fully implement the four main elements on which the document says it wants the labelling system to rest:

"protection of consumers' health from any risks introduced by the production process, ... nutritional implications ... technological changes in the properties of the food ... and the prevention of deceptive trade practices."

Information is most fairly and expeditiously given through product labelling. The food buyers' right to know requires labels to carry information which includes:

The precautionary principle embodied in Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD), has been adopted by all States Party to the Biodiversity Convention. Labelling directly empowers food buyers to exercise precaution to:

A precautionary approach is essential as foods from gene technology have no history of safe use.

Scope of the Recommendations

5. Failure to label foods produced by novel production processes would be deceptive. "Substantial equivalence" of end products has no scientific basis, nor logical precedence over a system requiring disclosure of the differences resulting from new production methods.

6. Gene technologies have no established history of safe use (the traditional criterion for including organisms in the food supply) and may pose increased risks. Precaution dictates that we adopt conservative assumptions. Many foods remain labelled with production processes that were controversial until a history of safe use and buyer acceptance were established - pasteurised dairy products, for example. Indeed, pasteurisation is now so universally accepted that unpasteurised products must be labelled. This and many other precedents offer a strong case for labelling.

7. The CCFL's work on labelling organic produce and halal foods sets clear and compelling precedents for the same approach to genetic engineering and other novel food production technologies.

Gene technology, organics and halal all involve the same food safety and other issues, even if not concurrently. For example, Halal is grounded in a long cultural tradition of avoiding potentially dangerous foods, based on folk knowledge of the dangers of disease transmission from animals to humans. And organic standards are designed to minimise human exposure to synthetic chemicals by producing foods in less intensively managed ecosystems. These standards are all particularly critical to the health and well-being of those who are hypersensitive and the precautionary model should be followed with all novel food production technologies.

8&9. We support the proposal for a General Standard, but also covering whole foods which are themselves genetically manipulated organisms.

The potential impacts of food irradiation on end products meant the only responsible course was to set a standard requiring notification on labels. It is a very good precedent for a precautionary approach to labelling gene tech foods.

10. The expectation of food buyers is that they will be informed of any substantive changes to either production processes or end product characteristics. The Australian Department of Industry Science and Technology-funded survey conducted by the Australian National University found that some 89% of respondents wanted labelling. Other surveys world-wide have produced comparable results. They have also shown industry fears that transgenic foods would be universally rejected to be largely baseless.

Genetically engineered foods are novel because the process necessarily means they contain genetic materials, proteins and possibly other substances not usually in the particular foods and, in some cases, never before in the food supply.

As evidenced by the L-tryptophan case, they may also contain toxic metabolites. In 1989 Showa Denko K.K. marketed tryptophan as a nutritional supplement in the USA. It had been produced in genetically engineered bacteria (Does Medical Mystery Threaten Biotech? Science, Page 619, 2 November 1990). Thousands of people fell ill - 1500 being permanently disabled and 37 died. High pressure liquid chromatography showed this product was more than 99.6% pure tryptophan (An Investigation of the Cause of the Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome Associated with Tryptophan Use, New England Journal of Medicine, 323: 357-365, 1990). However, they also contained traces of a highly toxic contaminant which accounted for less than 0.01% of the total mass of the product (EMS and Tryptophan Production: A Cautionary Tale, TIBTECH,12:346-352, 1994). The process of production made the key difference as previously synthesised tryptophan had been safe.

Had Showa Denko labelled its product, many lives may have been saved. Genetically engineered foods must be labelled as no testing regime can ever be exhaustive. Some residual risk of undetected harmful aspects will always remain with new techniques able to introduce unanticipated side-effects. There are residual risks regardless of the tests done or the testing period. Labels allow food buyers to choose for themselves whether or not to accept this residual risk.

11. This seeks to ignore the many precedents which refute the insistence on a purely end product focus for labelling. There is no justification for excluding foods produced by gene technologies from a general provision to label.

General food safety issues

14. "Substantial equivalence" is an undefined and unoperationalised concept created by the food industry to fast track genetically engineered foods into the human food supply without due notice to food buyers. It seeks to provide industry with a basis for the "self-regulation" of transgenic foods and to avoid detailed assessment prior to commercialisation. The idea is based on commercial and public relations precepts, not on science.

"Substantial equivalence" implies that two foods are equivalent in all characteristics. But in practice only selected characteristics would be compared. If that restricted set were found to be not much different, the genetically engineered food would be classed as substantially equivalent to the conventional counterpart and further tests and labels would not be required.


16. We reject the view that in vitro, in vivo animal, or even small scale human tests are sufficient to establish that novel foods have no allergenic properties, that might justify a failure to label. The acknowledged allergenic potential of all food makes full labelling of novel foods essential. It is impossible to anticipate the needs and vulnerability of all people and they must be empowered to protect themselves.

Other aspects

19. Residues of a GMO primarily used to express a drug or industrial chemical should not be diverted into the human food supply. That is not a labelling issue and no question of equivalence should arise.

Proposed amendments

22. Labelling cannot replace safety assessment of novel foods but both are essential. Industry is attempting to use the concept of "substantial equivalence" to avoid both.

All novel foods should be subject to full public assessment on a case-by-case basis and clear, complete and honest labelling should be required to provide a precautionary backup, at the very least until a history of safe use has been established for each product. This would take, say, ten years. A process of early warning through adverse reaction registers should also be part of a precautionary system.

23. With novel foods, it is the unexpected and the rare event that must be looked out for, as well as the known or expected, such as recognised sources of allergy.

24. In novel foods, any or all of the nominated characteristics may be modified in obvious or unforeseen ways by the production process, including the addition of new genes and their products. Thus, labelling is essential. There are many examples of labelling and other requirements based on reference to production processes, as catalogued earlier in the paper.

Public opinion polls clearly demonstrate the existence of a large body of people with philosophical, religious and ethical objections to some or all aspects of genetically engineered foods, whose conscientious preferences and objections must be met through labelling. With 60% of processed foods containing soyabean, for example, our objections to Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans cannot be met except by adequate labelling.


26. Defining the subject of the paper as "foods and food components which have been produced by techniques that change the heritable traits of an organism, such as recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology" makes it abundantly clear that a novel process with novel outcomes is involved and all their products must be labelled.

General recommendations

27. This section should include a general requirement to label all genetically engineered foods.

As drafted, these proposals simply fly in the face of all the preceding discussion. They would allow the industry to be unregulated and to deny customers' right to know. The proposal should not proceed.

Bob Phelps Director April 7, 1997

Australian GeneEthics Network c/- ACF 340 Gore Street, Fitzroy. 3065 Australia Tel: (03) 9416.2222 Fax: (03) 9416.0767 {Int Code (613)} email: WWW: (under construction)

News from Europe

PS. There is a lot of Controversy going on in Europe regarding the acceptance of genetically engineered products. Here are a few headlines from the last few days.

STRASBOURG, April 8, France (AP) -- The European Parliament overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to recommend an end to the sale of genetically-altered corn in the 15-nation European Union.

By a vote of 407-2, parliament called on the European Commission to suspend its authorization for imports of the grain, which was granted last December to the Swiss company Ciba-Geigy.

BRUSSELS, April 9 (Reuter) - The European Commission rejected on Wednesday a European Parliament call for a ban on gene-modified maize sales, saying it had no legal powers to do this and defending its decision to clear the product last December.

BRUSSELS, April 10 (Reuter) - Consumers must have guarantees and information about food containing genetically modified organisms, Luc Guyau, the new French president of the EU farmers' organisation, COPA, said on Thursday.

"The consumer must be above all protected and informed," Guyau told a news conference marking the start of a two-year term as leader of the EU's eight million farmers. Guyau, head of the main French farmers' union FNSEA, stressed that economic interests must take second place.

LUXEMBOURG, April 10 (Reuter) - Austria urged its European Union partners on Thursday to support its national ban on gene- modified maize when it comes up for vetting before key EU committees.

Richard Wolfson, PhD Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food

Natural Law Party 500 Wilbrod Street Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2 Tel. 613-565-8517 Fax. 613-565-6546 email: NLP Website: . To receive regular news from the Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food, please sent an email message to , with the words 'subscribe GE' in the subject line. To remove yourself from this list, please send the message 'unsubscribe GE'

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