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Safety assessments of GM foods

How does FSANZ ensure GM foods are safe?

FSANZ has established a rigorous and transparent process for assessing the safety of GM foods. The safety assessment is undertaken in accordance with internationally established scientific principles and guidelines developed through the work of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, World Health Organization (WHO) and the codex Alimentarius Commission.

The data requirements to guide the safety assessment are provided in Guideline 3.5.1 of the Application Handbook and additional information on these data requirements is provided in Part 2.3 (GM Applications - Additional Information) of the Application Handbook.

FSANZ conducts a thorough safety assessment of all GM foods before they are allowed in the food supply. This assessment ensures that any approved GM foods are as safe and nutritious as comparable conventional foods already in the Australian and New Zealand food supply.

What's involved in a safety assessment?

The safety assessment of a GM food is conducted within the established risk assessment framework used by FSANZ. In the case of GM food, the primary purpose is: (i) to identify new or altered hazards associated with the food as a result of the genetic modification; (ii) to assess whether there is any risk associated with any identified hazards under the intended conditions of use; and (iii) to determine if any new conditions of use are needed to enable safe use of the food.

The safety assessment is characterised by:

  • Case-by-case consideration of GM foods

Case-by-case assessment is necessary because the key issues requiring consideration in a safety assessment will often depend on the type of food being evaluated and the nature of the genetic modification.

  • Consideration of both the intended and unintended effects of the genetic modification

In addition to the intended effect (e.g. a new trait, such as insect protection), there may also be other effects associated with the genetic modification that were unintended (e.g. compositional changes to the food) and which may impact on the health and safety of the population. Therefore it is important that both the intended and any unintended effects are evaluated.

  • Comparisons with conventional foods having an acceptable standard of safety.

Such a comparative approach focuses on: (i) the identification of similarities and differences between the GM food and an appropriate comparator; and (ii) a characterisation of any of the identified differences in order to determine if they may raise potential safety and nutritional issues.

The goal of the safety assessment is not to establish the absolute safety of the GM food but rather to consider whether the GM food is comparable to the conventional counterpart food, i.e., that the GM food has all the benefits and risks normally associated with the conventional food.

Is company data used during the assessment of a GM food?

The responsibility for demonstrating the safety of any new food product on the market lies with the developer of that product. This is also the case for new chemicals and drugs. When an applicant seeks approval for a new GM food, they must provide FSANZ with the evidence that supports the safety of the product. It is a requirement that this data be generated according to quality assurance guidelines that are based on internationally accepted protocols (i.e. validated methodology and procedures that are consistent with Good Laboratory Practice (GLP)) and stand up to external scrutiny (i.e. independent audits and documentation trails). To achieve this, the applicant submits to FSANZ a comprehensive dossier of quality-assured raw experimental data for each GM food. This enables FSANZ to independently assess the data and reach a conclusion about the safety of the food.

FSANZ also complements the data package provided by the applicant with information from the scientific literature, other applications, other government agencies and the public.

Why does FSANZ not do its own independent testing of GM foods?

Paper reviews are a standard scientific method of evaluation used by regulators around the world, to evaluate the health and safety of a variety of products including food, drugs and agricultural and veterinary chemicals. The methods and approach used by FSANZ are wholly consistent with international guidelines developed according to scientific advice provided by the WHO, FAO, and OECD.

Companies involved in the development of GM foods spend millions of dollars rigorously testing their products according to these requirements, which include detailed documentation of testing. Thorough analysis is conducted of the data and of the protocol used to ensure the validity of results. If FSANZ determines that the data are not sufficient, additional information and testing may be required. FSANZ may also supplement the information provided by the Applicant with any published data in Australia and New Zealand or internationally that is relevant to the product in question.

Are there potential long-term risks associated with the consumption of GM foods?

Many of the food safety issues raised by GM foods are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means. GM foods are however subjected to a safety assessment before they are permitted in the food supply. The safety assessment includes extensive analyses of the composition of the food, a full consideration of the safety of any new substances that have been introduced into the food (e.g. proteins), as well as a thorough characterisation of the genetic changes that have been introduced into the organism from which the food is derived. This ensures that any GM food that is approved is as safe as food already in the food supply, including in the long term.

To date, gene technology has not been shown to introduce any new or altered hazards into the food supply, therefore the potential for long term risks associated with GM foods is considered to be no different to that for conventional foods already in the food supply. As a consequence, FSANZ does not consider that long term studies are generally needed to ensure the safety of GM foods.

Should developments in the technology result in modifications that potentially introduce new or altered hazards into the food, such foods may require additional considerations to address the potential for long term health effects. In such cases, long term studies may be a valid approach to include in the assessment of the overall safety of such foods.

Why doesn't FSANZ require that GM foods be tested in animals?

As part of a continual review of FSANZ's scientific approach to the safety assessment of GM foods, FSANZ convened an expert panel in June 2007 to develop guidance and recommendations on the role animal feeding studies can play in the safety assessment of GM foods. The conclusions of the panel remain current today.

Read the report from the expert panel.

Is the composition of GM foods different to the composition of non-GM foods

Sometimes the purpose of the genetic modification may be to deliberately introduce a compositional change to the food, e.g. to increase the level of a particular nutrient. Examples of GM foods with deliberate changes to composition that have been assessed by FSANZ include high oleic acid soybeans and soybeans that produce stearidonic acid. In most cases however other characteristics are changed in the organism, without affecting the composition of derived food, e.g. herbicide tolerance.

Compositional analyses are primarily done to determine if any unexpected changes in composition have occurred to the food and to establish its nutritional adequacy. Compositional analyses are particularly important where there has been a deliberate change to the composition of food. Analysis of the composition of the food in these circumstances helps to confirm that the new or altered characteristic is being expressed appropriately, and also helps to quantify the magnitude of the change, which may be important for assessing safety.

Sometimes, even when there has been no intent to alter the composition of a food, the analysis will indicate that the composition of the GM food differs slightly from the non-GM control line. Where this occurs, FSANZ will analyse such differences to determine their biological relevance. This is done by comparing the values for the altered constituent to those of other commercial varieties and to the range of natural variation (obtained from the published literature). The use of published ranges and historical control data as comparators in safety assessment studies is standard for interpreting biological and analytical variation.

To date, the significant differences between test and control lines tend to be small and they are usually within the range that would be expected for other commercial varieties. In these cases, FSANZ concludes that the observed difference is not biologically meaningful and certainly does not pose a risk to consumers. Sometimes, differences can be explained by differences in locations or seasons. Generally, the differences do not occur consistently in all locations and are therefore not considered to indicate a trend.

Does genetically modifying a food decrease its nutritional value?

There is no evidence to suggest that genetic modification per se reduces the nutritional value of food.

Are there risks associated with the possible introduction of new toxins and allergens in GM foods?

Typically the main outcome of genetic modification is the expression of a new protein or proteins in the organism. These new proteins may subsequently be present in derived food products. While a large and diverse range of proteins are ingested as part of the normal human diet without any adverse effects, a small number have the potential to impair health, e.g. because they are allergens or may have toxic or anti-nutritional effects. As a consequence, one of the main parts of the safety assessment of any GM food is a consideration of the potential toxicity and allergenicity of any new proteins introduced into the food.

Assessment of potential toxicity and allergenicity is done using a weight of evidence approach, which means a variety of evidence, drawn from a number of different studies, is used to reach an overall conclusion. Further details on the FSANZ assessment of potential toxicity and allergenicity can be obtained from the Application Handbook.

Is there potential for an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans resulting from the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM foods?

Antibiotic resistance marker genes are sometimes used in the development of GM plants to facilitate the selection of cells that have been transformed with the gene of interest. The antibiotic resistance gene provides a selective advantage to the transformed cell enabling it to grow and divide in the presence of the antibiotic. Cells that have not been transformed will not survive.

Although theoretically possible, horizontal DNA transfer of antibiotic resistance genes from food products to gut microorganisms is regarded as a rare possibility because of the many complex and unlikely events that would need to occur consecutively. As a precaution, the use of marker genes encoding resistance to antibiotics with significant public health uses (e.g. vancomycin) is avoided.

Not all GM foods contain antibiotic resistance genes. In some cases, these genes are removed after successful transformation. In other cases alternative selectable marker genes may be used (e.g. herbicide tolerance genes are frequently used for selection purposes in plants). Over time, the use of antibiotic resistance genes in GM foods has become less commonplace. If alternative marker genes are used, they also need to be evaluated for their safety in the same way as for any other novel gene.

Is post-market monitoring of GM foods undertaken?

Post-market monitoring is often suggested as a means of demonstrating whether long-term adverse health effects may be associated with the consumption of GM foods.

It has been recognised internationally that the use of pre-market safety assessment already provides assurance that a GM food is comparable to its conventional counterpart in relation to health risks and benefits, therefore the likelihood of identifying long-term effects specifically attributable to GM foods would be very low. Moreover, the practicality of using post-market monitoring to assess the long-term human health impacts of consuming GM foods has not been established.

Many chronic health problems have complex causes and it is unlikely that observational epidemiological studies could identify such effects specifically related to GM foods. The same also applies to the identification of potential long-term beneficial health effects.

In general, therefore, FSANZ does not believe post-market monitoring to be a practical, enforceable or effective risk management option. This is particularly the case where passive monitoring or general health surveillance, which does not address a specific hypothesis, is proposed.

Nevertheless, we recognise that post-market monitoring may be appropriate in certain circumstances. Post-market monitoring may be useful in situations where a GM food has been developed specifically to produce a nutritional effect in the population. In these cases it may be desirable to monitor changes in nutrient intake levels in order to confirm assumptions made during the risk assessment and evaluate their potential effect on the nutritional and health status of the population.

The need for post-market monitoring following approval of a GM food will be considered by FSANZ on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the unique characteristics of the GM food and the feasibility of undertaking such a study.

There are currently no official mechanisms within Australia and New Zealand for monitoring the long-term impacts of GM foods. In Australia and New Zealand, as in most other countries, the responsibility for post-market monitoring is covered by an ongoing duty of care on the part of the developer. The developer is expected to monitor for existing and emerging risks that may be associated with product and notify regulatory authorities whenever new information is uncovered.

Do herbicide-tolerant crops have higher chemical residues?

The use of herbicide tolerant crops is likely to result in a shift either in the type of herbicide that is used during the cultivation of the crop or the pattern of usage but will not necessarily result in higher chemical residues. Herbicide tolerant crops exist that have been developed using conventional plant breeding therefore the issue of herbicide tolerance is not specific to GM crops.

For further information see Herbicides in GM foods.

More information

Page last updated 30 January 2024