Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Food Standards Authority Defends GM Safety

Earlier this year, a scientific review raised concerns that double-stranded RNA molecules produced in new genetically modified crops could pose a risk to human health. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has responded to the claims by Heinemann et al. (2013) that this gene silencing technology is entering the food supply without adequate scrutiny.

“The FSANZ response to Heinemann et al. 2013 is well-considered and very thorough. It demonstrates that the risk claims in the article are an overreaction based on dubious scientific evidence about the biosafety risks in plants genetically modified with gene silencing approaches.

“The public can take comfort from two key aspects.

  • Double-stranded RNAs (dsRNA) do not present a new issue for food safety. They are very common in a wide range of organisms, including many fresh foods that have a long history of safe use in our diet.
  • The current approaches used by regulatory bodies, including FSANZ, are sufficiently robust to address food safety of GM products with dsRNAs.”

Dr Tony Conner is Science Group Leader of AgResearch (New Zealand).

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“FSANZ’s report provides a sensible and well-argued counterpoint to Prof Heinemann’s claims, and I find their report very convincing.

“The difference of views expressed by FSANZ and Prof Heinemann spring, I think, from one controversial paper... This paper is disputed, as some authors have criticised the techniques used, and other experiments have failed to find evidence of plant RNAs in animals...We have no evidence that ingested RNAs from food affect human genes.

“[The evidence also shows]...RNA therapies targeting viruses and other diseases, designed to manipulate genes in just the way suggested by Prof Heinemann, have been unsuccessful because humans do not easily take up such RNAs.

“My opinion is that FSANZ have got it right. Their assessment is that the risk to human health of double-stranded RNA constructs used in GM plants is negligible, and I agree.

"I do, however, think that one of Prof Heinemann’s suggestions, that bioinformatic examination of potential human targets of the RNAs made in GM plants should be carried out to ensure that such RNAs cannot affect human genes, is worth doing... While I firmly believe that the risks of such RNA constructs are negligible, performing this analysis is trivially easy, and thus worth doing.”

A/Prof Peter Dearden is Director of Genetics Otago, University of Otago.

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“Our food safety watchdog, FSANZ, is relying on assumptions instead of seeking evidence when confronted by a newly identified risk in GM foods.

“When FSANZ says it is not “likely” that small dsRNAs in foods will harm humans, it effectively acknowledges this is still possible, and so a risk. Yet it proposes not even testing for that risk until the ‘weight of evidence’ suggests it is doing harm. We say consumer protection should be forward looking – do the tests now: don’t wait for harm to be proven...

“FSANZ should require this testing as it has the power to in its legislation, it has the option to under international food safety guidelines, and it has a responsibility to the people of Australia and New Zealand to do this...

“RNA molecules are in the food we eat, but to extrapolate from the safe use of food with naturally occurring forms to those that are engineered and unique to new kinds of food is wrong. Proteins of all kinds are also in the food we eat but new proteins are evaluated for the potential to be toxic or allergenic in food.

“These dsRNA molecules can participate in fundamental biological reactions in human cells, and so must be tested to be determined safe... Some of these molecules are proven as pesticides. They can have potent effects on animals and should be tested before use on humans.

“Let’s use scientific evidence to see if the new dsRNAs in approved and future foods are safe. Science and public health will then be the winner, whatever the outcome.”

Prof Jack Heinemann of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury is a co-author of the original paper.

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“The method of assessment of GE Foods conducted by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand on behalf of Australia and New Zealand is exactly the same as internationally established as appropriate and used by all the major regulatory authorities in the world.

“I note the suggestion that clinical testing be conducted on each new food, but this would seem to be quite impractical. This sort of testing is not required for any current dietary risk assessments systems. Any risk assessments carried out on foods are always based on the data available at the time, and are never set in stone. Thus, at any time, new information on a substance or food will always be considered carefully, and if necessary a risk assessment will be appropriately updated.

“Revision of risk assessments is occurring around the world and within the WHO expert committees on a regular basis, and the acceptability of foods are constantly being updated. This would apply in the case of any genetically modified food that has an approval.”

John Reeve is Principal Advisor (Toxicology) in the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries.

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