Nutrition on the Internet

Nutrition & Food Science

ISSN: 0034-6659

Article publication date: 1 December 1999

84

Citation

(1999), "Nutrition on the Internet", Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 99 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/nfs.1999.01799fag.001

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited


Nutrition on the Internet

In this series of articles I have provided previously two reviews that focused solely on genetically modified (GM) foods. When these two reviews were written in November 1998, GM foods had yet to become the major UK mass media food issue that has seen seemingly constant coverage during 1999.

The interest level has led to the publication on the Internet of further material including a number of major reports. An update was given in a subsequent issue of Nutrition & Food Science. This article is a further update on this important issue and includes reference to material published up to and including June 1999.

Web site reviews

Update on the GM foods issue

House of Lords Report on GM Crops and the Government's Response

In December 1998, the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities published a two-volume report on the EU regulation of genetic modification in agriculture. The main report (volume 1) included consideration of the following:

  • Background. What is genetic modification?; genetic modification and traditional breeding; key events; history of regulation; principles of regulation; principles of risk assessment and risk management; differences between the US and EU regulatory approaches; international requirements for the movement of GMOs between countries; proposed revision of the 1990 deliberate release directive.

  • Views of witnesses and opinion of the Committee. Potential benefits and risks; benefits; risks; risk management and safety; GM food; further public concern; regulation; competitiveness.

A second volume provided accounts of the evidence presented to the Committee.

The Government response to the report has now been published. The response largely follows the House of Lords' order but concentrates on: specific recommendations; potential benefits and risks; risk assessment; risk management; GM food; consumer choice; regulation; and recommendations.

In both reports, and the EU Regulation to which each refers, the key theme is the need for proper application of risk assessment and risk management. With respect to GM foods the Lords Committee notes that it is not the application of genetic modification that is important but rather the new characteristics of each individual product.

The two documents are:

  1. 1.

    House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. 2nd Report for the Session 1998-1999. The two volumes of the House of Lords Select Committee report are available in print format from The Stationery Office. Volume 1 is available via the Internet.

  2. 2.

    Government Response to the above is available from MAFF or via the Internet.

    Both of the above documents can be accessed via the following URL: < ahref=" http://www.maff. gov.uk/food/novel/holrepot.htm">http://www.maff. gov.uk/food/novel/holrepot.htm

Royal Society

A previous review in this series made reference to a Royal Society report which focused on the issues that surround the use of GM techniques for the development of new varieties of crop plants (see http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/st_pol40.htm).

Three more reports from the Royal Society on GM foods were released in April and May 1999.

1. Scientific Advice on GM Foods

This document was produced by the Royal Society as a response to an Inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee -- this inquiry is focusing on the nature and quality of scientific advice provided to the UK Government.

The Royal Society made positive comments with respect to the adequacy and quality of the scientific advice. However, it criticised the current "closed" nature of much of this advice: the Society recommends that this advice should be made publicly available unless it is demonstrably against the national interest to do so.

The Society was critical about the organisational structure of advisory committees; at present, these reflect the confusing organisation of GMO legislation; (there is separate legislation for different types of GM products).

The Society recommends a simplification of the scientific advisory system through the use of an oversight body, to which specialist advisory committees would report, to take a broad overview of all GM developments and concerns relating to biotechnology. The Society also recommends full use of ad hoc groups and external expertise to focus on particular concerns; in this context Government should also consult independent bodies of international reputation.

The Society suggests that the oversight committee could give a more complete analysis of all the issues than is possible with the current case-by-case approach to obtaining expert advice. The Society provides a useful list of topics that it believes are being missed:

  • Review of enforcement mechanisms for current regulations.

  • Review of mechanisms by which GM crop plants could be monitored in the environment and recommendations for long-term monitoring of impact on ecosystems.

  • Review of current guidelines for isolation of certified seed crops and high erucic acid oilseed rape and provision of specific GM crops of concern and possible statutory provisions.

  • Review of available methods for minimising gene transfer to crops and recommendations regarding further research.

  • Consideration of possible positive and negative effects of insect-tolerant crops on the ecosystem and provision of guidelines for growth of such crops and recommendations for further research.

  • Consideration of current guidelines for growth of GM and non-GM herbicide-tolerant crops and the potential for statutory measures.

  • Regular review of advisory committee membership.

  • Analysis of the current regulations, with particular attention to consideration of whether allergenicity and toxicity of GM food receive adequate consideration.

  • Applications for herbicide use on a crop should be considered in conjunction with applications for release of herbicide-tolerant crops. There should also be a mechanism by which the long-term impact of such crops on agricultural practices should be monitored.

  • Consideration of the potential effects of GM crops in comparison with the effects of current agricultural practices in general on ecosystems and the environment as a whole.

The URL for this report is http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/st_pol52.htm

2. GMOs and the environment

This second report was prepared by the same expert group as the above document and was released on the same date (30 April 1999). It was prepared to provide information to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.

It is unsurprising that this document follows many of the themes addressed in the above report; the differences reflect the focus of each report rather than substantive matters.

The URL is http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/st_pol53.htm

3. Consideration of the research of Dr Arpad Pusztai

Dr Arpad Pusztai raised concerns about the safety of GM foods following research that he conducted at the Rowett Research Institute. His report on this matter has been discussed in an earlier review in this series (see the following URL: http://www.rri/sari.ac.uk/gmo/index.html).

Because of the controversial nature of Dr Pusztai's conclusions, the Royal Society has undertaken an independent review of the research evidence and the report arising from this review is available on the Internet.

The Royal Society obtained copies of relevant documents relating to the work undertaken. The report lists documents received and reviewed. The Society records that Dr Pusztai indicated that further information existed but this was not provided to the Society.

A Royal Society Working Group sent the available documents to six independent, impartial reviewers whose expertise included statistics, clinical trials, physiology, nutrition, quantitative genetics, growth and development, and immunology. The reviewers were asked to examine the data and to advise on the scientific merit of the work; this follows exactly the usual and internationally accepted procedure for judgements in scientific research.

Dr Pusztai protested to the Royal Society that the documents were only internal Institute papers and that it was thus not appropriate to peer review them. However, as they had been released to the media and published on the Internet, the Society took the view that it was appropriate that they should be subjected to expert scientific review. This degree of scientific scrutiny is especially important since the general media have accepted the Pusztai position without serious questioning.

The Royal Society reviewers and the Working Group concluded that the data were inadequate to support the statements made to the media. Thus the Society concluded that it was unwise to place merit on any public statements based on this work.

Finally, the Royal Society reminds us of the very important fact that it must also be noted very strongly that, even if the claims made for this particular research had been accepted, it would be unacceptable to generalise in statements about the safety or otherwise of all GM foods.

The URL for this Royal Society report is http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/st_pol53.htm

The Government's Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) has also considered Dr Pusztai's work. This group reached the same conclusions as the Royal Society reviewers. The COT report on this review is available on the Internet at the following URL: http://www.maff.gov.novel/galant.htm

Official advice to ministers

The Government's Chief Medical Officer (Professor Liam Donaldson) and the Chief Scientist (Sir Robert May) have prepared a joint review paper which considers the implications for human health of genetically modified (GM) foods.

The paper addresses three questions:

  1. 1.

    Are there any inherent hazards in the genetic modification process itself?

  2. 2.

    Are the products (i.e. the foods) harmful?

  3. 3.

    Will GM feeds given to animals that are then eaten by people pose a hazard to human health?

The conclusions of the review are as follows:

  • Many of the issues raised by GM foods are equally applicable to foods produced by conventional means. It was noted that potential nutritional imbalances or allergic effects could occur from either type of food.

  • There is no current evidence to suggest that the GM technologies used to produce food are inherently harmful.

  • The two senior advisers were reassured by the precautionary nature of the current procedures used to assess the safety of individual GM foods. However, they do suggest that the process could be strengthened by the development of a health surveillance system.

  • The authors observe that, in a field of rapid scientific and technical development, nothing can be certain. As GM is a young science, there is a continuing need to keep close watch on developments and to continue to fund research to improve scientific understanding in this area.

  • The authors also welcome the recent moves to improve the openness of the regulatory procedures to public scrutiny. They favour further similar moves to help to inform public debate in this area.

The review also includes a number of recommendations:

  • Government advisory bodies should continue to monitor developments in both scientific knowledge and international regulation regimes. Further advice should be provided to Government as necessary.

  • The UK procedures for the regulation of GM food technology are rigorous. The Government should offer this expertise internationally as a contribution to the dissemination of high standards.

  • Government should continue to fund research to improve scientific understanding and to fill gaps in current knowledge.

  • A robust system of population health surveillance in relation to the consumption of GM foods is needed if the Government is to be able to respond rapidly should any unexpected effects occur.

Technical annexes to this report provide:

  1. 1.

    A full list of GM foods considered in the UK:

    • products receiving clearance;

    • products known to be on sale in the UK;

    • other products considered: prior to the introduction of the Novel Foods Regulation; after the introduction of the Novel Foods Regulation.

  2. 2.

    History of UK ACNFP guidelines for the safety assessment of novel foods and development of guidance from the European Commission.

  3. 3.

    Information on international activity in respect of GM foods.

The URL for this report is http://www.doh.gov.uk/gmfood.html

House of Commons Select Committee

The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology published an analysis of the Government's systems for obtaining scientific advice on (GM) foods.

The report covers: the risks and benefits of GM foods; the scientific advisory system for GM food; the approval process; the Government's use and handling of advice; and the Committee's conclusions.

The Committee makes a total of 33 wide-ranging recommendations. The recommendations deal with matters such as:

  • The need for sensible use of scientific information by the mass media.

  • The use of "GM-free" statements in labelling.

  • International considerations of GM controls.

  • Membership of the scientific advisory committees.

  • Greater openness in the deliberations of the scientific advisory committees.

  • Government-sponsored research on GM foods.

  • Clarification on the criteria to be applied before any commercial plantings of GM crops are permitted.

  • Reorganisation of the reporting routes for the key advisory committees (Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes and Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment).

  • Establishment of a system to "audit" the functioning of scientific advisory committees.

  • Staffing arrangements for the secretariats that support the work of the scientific advisory committees.

The report is available in two volumes from the Stationery Office and on the Internet. The Internet text can be accessed from the Parliament Web site which is reached most easily via the general government site at the URL: http://www.open.gov.uk Select the Organisational Index and proceed through the Parliament site though the House of Commons to reports from Select Committees.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics

A Working Party of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has published a report that focuses on the ethical and social issues associated with the introduction of GM techniques into food production.

The report covers the following issues: genetic technologies: scientific possibilities and ethical principles; the scientific basis of genetic modification; issues relating to commercial implementation; impact on developing countries; consumer choice and food quality; the environmental impact of GM plants; implementing principles into policy; conclusions.

The major ethical themes that informed the workings of the Working Party were as follows: the acceptability of genetic modification of nature; obligations to distinguish between GM and non-GM foods; principles which should govern the regulation of GM crops; managing uncertainty about the impact of GM crops; regulatory structures; public involvement in the decision-making process; responsibilities of companies developing GM crops; patents and GM crops; consequences of GM crops for developing countries.

The full text of this report is available on the Internet at the following URL: http://www.nuffield.com/bioethics/publication/modified crops/index.html

Government action

On 21 May 1999, the Chairman of the Government's Ministerial Committee on Biotechnology, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Dr Jack Cunningham, announced that two new advisory bodies are to be established with respect to GM applications:

  1. 1.

    The Human Genetics Commission will advise on applications of biotechnology in health care and the application of human genetics on our lives.

  2. 2.

    The Agriculture and Environment Commission will cover the use of biotechnology in agriculture and its environmental effects.

Both Commissions will work closely in conjunction with the, soon to be established, Food Standards Agency.

Dr Cunningham made his announcement to Parliament and thus the full text of his statement and the verbatim account of the subsequent Parliamentary debate are recorded in the Parliamentary Record (Hansard). The URL is: http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm/cmhansrd.htm

Prince of Wales

The Prince's Web site has been reviewed previously (see http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/).

On 1 June 1999, the Prince published an article in the Daily Mail which posed ten questions with respect to GM foods - for each the Prince gave his personal view. For those who missed the article, the questions are repeated below:

  1. 1.

    Do we need GM food in this country?

  2. 2.

    Is GM food safe for us to eat?

  3. 3.

    Why are the rules for approving GM foods so much less stringent than those for new medicines produced using the same technology?

  4. 4.

    How much do we really know about the environmental consequences of GM crops?

  5. 5.

    Is it sensible to plant test crops without strict regulations in place?

  6. 6.

    How will consumers be able to exercise choice?

  7. 7.

    If something goes wrong with a GM crop, who will be held responsible?

  8. 8.

    Are GM crops really the only way to feed the world's growing population?

  9. 9.

    What effect will GM crops have on the people of the world's poorest countries?

  10. 10.

    (10) What sort of world do we want to live in?

The full text of the Prince's Daily Mail article is available at the following URL: http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/speeches/agriculture_01061999.html

Professor Derek Burke, a former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, took up the Prince's challenge and provided an authoritative alternative view in an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 14 June 1999.

Professor Burke's article can be obtained from the "Electronic Telegraph" at the following URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk Users of this Web site are required to complete a simple registration form.

Concluding comment

When I began planning this article, I had intended to provide a broad-ranging review across a number of issues and areas of interest - but the volume of recently available material on GM foods has taken over. Still, I believe it is useful to explore current issues in some depth and I must make no apology about focusing again on the topic - after all GM foods have been the predominant UK food issue of 1999.

Readers are reminded that not all the key texts are available on the Internet. For example, the British Medical Association published a document in May 1999 entitled The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health. This report was produced as a consequence of a resolution at the previous BMA conference (printed copies are available from the BMA priced at £4.95 + p&p).

It is the unfortunate nature of publishing that a third of the articles in this series for 2000 will be written by the time this article reaches you, the reader. However, if anyone has that special insight about what will be the key food and nutrition issue for 2001 I would be glad to hear from you - particularly if you can point me to a few relevant Web sites.

The next article in this series will also have a focus - a review of the materials that have emerged from the European Union systems in recent months.

If you have identified a Web site likely to be of interest to readers of Nutrition & Food Science please contact the author of this series of articles as follows: by post at the University of Luton; by Fax to 01234 766926 or 01582 743237; by e-mail to stephen.fallows@ luton.ac.uk

Dr Stephen FallowsUniversity of Luton

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