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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 14:57 GMT
Call for GM food safety tests
Greenpeace environmental protesters attack a field of genetically modified crops at Lyng, near Norwich, Norfolk
Protesters have ripped up some GM crop trials
Safety checks for GM foods should be improved, says the UK's leading body of scientists.

GM foods pose "negligible" risk to human health but there should be tighter regulations to reassure consumers, says a Royal Society report.

The tests have got to be dramatically improved

Adrian Bebb, Friends of the Earth
Professor Jim Smith, who chaired the working group, said: "We have looked at all of the available research, and found nothing to suggest that the process of genetic modification makes potential foodstuffs inherently unsafe.

"However, we fully support the public's right to know that all new foods, regardless of whether they contain GM ingredients, are subjected to rigorous safety and nutritional checks."

The environmental group Friends of the Earth says the scientific establishment has at last woken up to public concern about GM food.

Public concern

According to Adrian Bebb, GM campaigns director, the report confirms all the concerns that have been raised over the last few years.

"There isn't a proper food testing system in place. We don't know what the long-term impact of GM foods are," he said.

GM food label (BBC)
Different EU states have different criteria for assessing GM foods
"We don't know if they're going to cause lots of allergies and we don't know about their impact on children. The tests have got to be dramatically improved."

The Royal Society announced last year that it would review the latest scientific findings on GM food, in light of public concern. It last reported on the subject four years ago.

The latest assessment concludes that there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from current GM ingredients, nor to believe that genetic modification makes foods inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts.

But it calls for the tightening of regulations for all novel foods, particularly with respect to allergy testing.

It is obvious that consumers want their food to be safeguarded by rules that are rigorous enough to prevent any loopholes

Professor Jim Smith, Royal Society
The current safety assessments rely on a principle known as "substantial equivalence", whereby a new GM crop is deemed safe if it is essentially the same as the unmodified equivalent.

The report recommends that this method should be made more explicit and objective during safety assessments, and harmonised between Member States of the European Union.

Professor Smith says the "rather piecemeal approach" to the regulation of GM foods in the UK, and EU in general, means that there might be some important gaps and inconsistencies.

"It is obvious that consumers want their food to be safeguarded by rules that are rigorous enough to prevent any loopholes," he said.

"But the legislation must not be so restrictive that it removes any incentive for introducing new food products that are potentially beneficial to society."

Allergy risk

The possibility of GM foods causing allergy has also raised concerns.

The report recommends that allergy screening of all new foodstuffs should be extended, regardless of whether they contain GM ingredients.

At present, tests are only carried out for material that is eaten but there are potential risks of allergic reactions from breathing in pollen, spores and dust, the Royal Society warns.

The scientists point out that babies are particularly vulnerable to changes in the nutritional content of their food.

It recommends that UK and EU laws should be re-examined to ensure that rigorous tests are carried out if GM ingredients are one day considered for use in infant formula.

Prof Jim Smith, Royal Society working group
"We do recognise that members of the public are quite worried about the human safety of GM foods"
Dr Vivien Howard, Liverpool University
"Over 90% of the population apparently want choice as to what they do eat"
Dr Sue Mayer responds to Professor Vivien Moses
"We do not know what the impact will be"
See also:

31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
GM crop trial sites announced
31 Jan 02 | UK
GM crop trials fuel concern
30 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Government signals GM cool-off
24 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
GM crops find friends in China
28 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Mexican study raises GM concern
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