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GM Foods – Safety Assessment of Genetically Modified Foods

(June 2005)


Most of the foods we eat today come from plants and animals that have been grown and bred by humans for countless generations, undergoing substantial genetic changes over several thousand years. Traditionally, plants or animals with the most desirable characteristics were chosen for food and for breeding the next generation. The desirable characteristics arose from naturally occurring variations in the genetic make-up of individual plants or animals. Thus, genetic modification, in this
sense, occurs naturally and forms the fundamental basis of evolution and breeding.

Today’s techniques of genetic modification provide new ways to identify particular characteristics and transfer them between living organisms. For example, it is now possible to make a copy of a particular gene from the cells of a plant, animal or microbe, and insert the copy into the cells of another organism to give it a desired characteristic (a process described in more detail in Section 3).

Because the resulting plants or animals have had their genetic material altered in some way, they are commonly referred to as ‘genetically modified’ or ‘GM’ organisms. Consequently, foods derived from GM plants or animals are often called ‘GM foods’. The term ‘GM food’ is also sometimes applied to foods that contain GM ingredients, and to food additives or processing aids produced using genetic modification.

The introduction of GM foods into our food supply has stimulated much discussion about the nature of these foods, their safety and their place in global food production. This publication explains the process that is used in Australia and New Zealand to assess the safety of GM foods:

Part 1 provides an overview of the safety assessment process. It looks at:

  • how GM food is regulated in Australia and New Zealand (Section 2)
  • the basics of gene technology (Section 3)
  • the principles applied to the safety assessment of GM food, and what is required before a GM
    food can be approved for sale (Section 4)
  • the GM foods that are available in Australia and New Zealand, and those that are available
    overseas (Section 5)
  • how GM foods are likely to develop in the future (Section 6)
  • answers to some frequently asked questions about GM foods (Section 7).

Part 2 looks in detail at the safety assessment of GM foods step by step, illustrated by a case study of a
soybean modified to be tolerant to a herbicide (Sections 8–15).

In addition, there are a number of appendices, which provide further information about:

  • Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) (Appendix 1)
  • the process for changing food standards (Appendix 2)
  • labelling of GM foods (Appendix 3)
  • the work of international organisations on the safety of GM foods (Appendix 4)
  • technical or unfamiliar terms (Appendix 5)
  • publications on aspects of GM foods covered in this publication (Appendix 6)
  • contacts and publications on aspects not covered in this document, such as the environmental
    and ethical issues surrounding GM foods (Appendix 7).

As at June 2005, twenty-five GM foods have been approved for use in Australia and New Zealand. Most of these foods have come from plants that have been genetically modified to improve their growing characteristics; for example, to protect the crop from pests or to make it tolerant to herbicides. In the future, genetic modification may be used to provide more direct benefits to consumers; for example, by improving the flavour or nutritional properties of foods.

Gene technology may bring benefits. However, it may also bring new and unexpected risks. Government has to assess potential risks and ensure that any risks are properly managed. The role of FSANZ in relation to GM foods is to assess them to ensure they are safe for consumption, and thus to protect public health and safety in Australia and New Zealand.

Download: GM Safety Foods - Safety Assessment of Genetically Modified Foods (pdf 786 kb)

More information

GM foods - consumer information  


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