MAKUHARI, Chiba Pref. — If the international community can set up strict safety standards on genetically modified foods, it would give countries a tool to stop the import of such foods to protect their people, said Jean Halloran, a representative of Consumers International.

Consumers International, a blanket organization of 250 member groups in 150 countries that supports slapping strict regulations on GM foods, was one of the nongovernmental organizations that took part in an international meeting of the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology that ended here Friday.

The task force is a body under the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission.

The Codex meeting aims to establish international safety standards for biotechnology-derived foods over a four-year period. If the standards are established, members of the World Trade Organization will be required to follow them in principle.

“The Codex is important because of the WTO. If there is a Codex standard, one country cannot file a challenge against another country which is following the Codex standard. But when there is no Codex standard, countries can challenge each other on anything,” Halloran said.

She voiced concern over the effects on human health of foods containing genetically modified organisms as international food trade rises and there is no common international standard on such foods. GM food safety standards vary by country.

For instance, European countries have a system called premarket approval, which does not allow introduction of GM foods to the market until their safety is confirmed.

The United States, in contrast, follows a voluntary system, while some countries do not have any system to review the safety of genetically engineered foods, Halloran said.

She noted that safety standards regarding GM foods in some countries are not always clear to other nations.

At the same time, she pointed out that major research projects on GM foods are under way in countries that include China, Brazil and Thailand, which are potential food-exporting countries.

“There are known potential risks with genetically engineered foods. If you do genetic engineering, there is a mistake that you can have unexpected effects and get toxic foods. It is important to have (international) standards for testing, assessment and risk-management decisions,” Halloran stressed.

She said the basic view of Consumers International is that genetic engineering is a completely new technology and can lead to new issues and problems that do not arise from conventional breeding.

While the view of her group is shared by member countries of the European Union, this view contrasts to that of the U.S., which regards genetically modified products as an extension of conventional plant breeding, Halloran said.

Consumers International takes the position that international standards to be established by the Codex task force should be strict due to the potential effects of GM foods on human health.

“We are not opposed to GM foods as a category. But we think it is essential that there be stringent standards for human safety and also for the environment,” said Halloran, who used to work for the U.S. government in environmental policymaking.

The group believes the Codex meeting should include such issues as premarket approval and traceability in its discussions to establish international guidelines, she said.

Traceability is a way to trace back the source of toxin or harmful substances when GM foods cause any problems such as sickness.

On the other hand, the group is against the concept of substantial equivalence, which regards GM foods as equivalent to conventional foods based on some scientific data.

Halloran said she hopes the Codex meeting, which focused on foods, will be a start toward the discussion on the effect of GM foods on the environment at an international level.