MAKUHARI, Chiba Pref. — As the trade in biotechnology-derived foods increases, consumer concerns over the safety of such foods are growing.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission — a United Nations organization jointly established by the World Health Organization and the Food Agriculture Organization — is working to create international guidelines to ensure the safety of those foods and alleviate public fears, said Jorgen Schlundt, a coordinator of a food safety program at the WHO and an expert on genetically modified foods.
The FAO looks at production and food security, while the WHO is responsible for health effects possibly attributable to GM foods, explained Schlundt, who is Danish.
Schlundt attended a four-day meeting of the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology, a body under the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission. The meeting was held at the Makuhari Messe complex here between Tuesday and Friday.
Since biotechnology can bring both benefits and risks to humans, a case-by-case approach is needed to analyze the safety of biotechnology-derived foods, and the Codex commission aims to create guidelines for doing analysis, Schlundt said.
“Codex is not looking at specific items yet. Codex is trying to set up a general system which can take care of those things . . . a general system of how you should do them,” Schlundt said.
The meeting of the task force was the first step in the compilation of a report by 2003 on international guidelines for biotechnology-derived foods. The conference attracted about 225 representatives from 33 countries and 24 organizations.
Biotechnology-derived foods can benefit people in such ways as decreasing the use of agricultural chemicals and leaving out allergic substances in foods. But at the same time, the technology can be used to produce products that pose risks to human health and life, Schlundt said.
“You cannot say that biotechnology is safe or that biotechnology is unsafe. The issue is not the technology. The important thing is the products you make from the technology,” he said.
While consumer concerns have been growing over the safety of GM foods, Schlundt said that scientists, the biotechnology industry and government officials started realizing the importance of responding to the concerns of consumers to win their trust.
“(There is a) big recognition that you have to take consumer concerns seriously. You have to explain what you are doing to ordinary consumers.”
However, Schlundt said that the Codex commission needs to quickly finish its project, which is shared by most U.N. member countries, because GM foods are already on the market.
The task force was created in accordance with a proposal made by the Japanese government in 1999 with the aim of submitting a report on GM foods to the Codex commission.
“Four years are short in the Codex system,” Schlundt said. “It usually takes eight years for the Codex to set up an international standard on foods. But we have to move as quickly as we can.”
Although consensus-building among member countries is the traditional way of reaching an agreement at the Codex commission, there are precedents for voting on matters requiring urgency, Schlundt said.
Although the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is also working on the same issue, Schlundt said the Codex commission can reflect the voice of less developed countries since it consists of many more countries.
“The international system is working slowly,” Schlundt said. “But sometimes you need not move too quickly if you want everybody to agree. It may be difficult, especially in biotechnology, because some countries have expertise (in the technology) and others don’t.”