Reflections on the First Session of the Codex ad hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology

-Darryl Macer,
Head, IUBS Delegation to the Meeting

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (May 2000), Internet supplement (p.69+).
After a decade of debate on the topic of the safety of food produced from GMOs (GM food), and in particular several years of intense public concern, the first session of the intergovernmental body charged with developing a harmonized approach to regulation of the safety of GM food has held its first meeting. The Task Force was set up at the 1999 meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint FAO/WHO body that regulates the safety of food in the world.

The chair is Japan, considered as a point between the views of USA and the European Union (EU). The meeting was regarded by all parties as a constructive beginning, which set out the main work areas for the four year Task Force. The meeting was attended by 225 participants from 33 member countries and 24 international organizations. The documents from the meeting are available at the Codex www site, making the process more transparent.

The report of the meeting was prepared on the 16th and adopted on the 17th by consensus, which is the preferred way that Codex works. The key outcomes were that two working groups will be set up.

One working group will be chaired by Germany is to develop draft guidelines for risk assessment with reference to food safety and nutrition for foods derived from biotechnology. This will gather data from all countries on the techniques that are used for detecting DNA in products, and will consider food safety and nutrition, substantial equivalence, potential long-term health effects and non-intentional effects. All delegations clearly want technical improvement in the detection methodology. That working group will meet the day before the second meeting of the Task Force next March.

The main controversy is whether other ideas can be added to the method that has been accepted until now, that of substantial equivalence. For example, Norway noted they also consider sustainable development and other issues when they assess the safety of foods. An expert FAO/WHO committee will met in June in Geneva to discuss the technical issues, and that will feed into the working group to meet in Japan in July. It is quite significant that this issue will be re-examined by an independent group of experts as it is central to the safety assessment of GM food, independent of political concerns

The second working group will be chaired by Japan and will develop broad general principles for the application of risk analysis to foods derived from biotechnology. This will consider a number of controversial issues and will meet in July in Japan. It will look at science-based decision-making, pre-market assessment, transparency, post-market monitoring, and other legitimate factors. Here the compromise was that pre-market assessment in general would be examined, which may mean notification, however the US strongly opposed the idea of pre-market approval that European delegations wanted.

There is much debate on what are other legitimate factors to consider, because this includes ethical, social, religious, economic and environment factors. Some delegations tried to put these off to the Codex Committee on General Principles that is meant to deal with these, but it is unclear whether the other committees will really deal with these issues sufficiently. It is expected they will enter into discussions later more, but the majority of delegations wanted them to be discussed. Those against were the US-led group of countries. It should be noted that the Cartegena Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity should manage environmental risks of living modified organisms, that includes seeds, but that is not every organism nor every risk.

There was consensus that risk communication including transparency was needed and openness. There will also be a background paper on the idea of familiarity because it is a new approach, that has been used in environmental risk assessment but not in food safety. However, the clearest example of debate was on the issue of traceability. France may be leading preparation of a paper to be prepared on this issue, however, several delegations said they were unfamiliar with this concept, including USA and Japan, despite the voice of the tomato industry and plant breeders who said this concept was used for decades. In fact the tracing of food back to its production sources is done in the USA, and they have one of the best systems, so it was considered a delaying tactic by some. Overall however, it will be more fruitful to have discussion over a background paper on what the exact concept means when applied to GM food, and it is hoped that this paper will be discussed next year if not before.

The Task Force will consider food of plant, microbial or animal origin, and attempt to define what substantial equivalence, biotechnology and recombinant DNA techniques really mean.

The meeting at the International Conference center at Makuhari Messe also stimulated a new coalition of NGOs who wish to find out more about GMOs and question the safety of GM food. They held a parallel conference, and on the opening morning handed participants a cookie made from non-GM soyabean, providing entertainment in butterfly costumes. For the rest of the time they had a separate program and could not be seen.

Unfortunately for the foreign participants the meeting was surrounded by too many policemen, and unfortunately for Japanese participants (including delegates of Japan) they were challenged even in the meeting hall to show their name tag. This is after the entry to the conference building through metal detector and by ten police personnel. Hopefully by March 2001 when the next meeting of the Task Force is held, a more relaxed atmosphere can be obtained.

However, the Ministry of Health and Welfare did make the meeting open to the public, offering a video relay to another building for 100 public persons, and another for the press. There were some people who applied for the public seats who were turned away on the day, having not been notified of their unsuccessful application for the seats. However, we can hope for more seats next time, and actually this is one of the most open Codex meetings to be held as it did allow public viewing of all discussion.

Overall the chair was applauded by all delegations, and Japan has made a good first meeting of the task force on what is going to be a hot issue. The codex secretariat was able to guide discussion and provide acceptable language for all delegations in the report, and there is a feeling that the process is underway for international approaches to safety assessment of all foods made by biotechnology. One of the issues will be to define what biotechnology is. It can include or exclude different techniques and food stuffs, and different delegations will want to mix these definitions for economic reasons.

Ultimately long-term public trust will only come from an open process of sound scientific assessment, and participation in the process. These facts seem to be recognized by all delegates. The issue of labeling is the focus of the Codex Committee on Labeling, which started work at the beginning of the 1990s and is still not yet resolved the issue. This Task Force recognizes consumer choice as very important, and the work is inter-related to the work of the other committee.

A Japanese Version of this paper was published in Asahi Science (May 2000), 106-7.
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