Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Researcher calls for food standard scrutiny

A leading genetic scientist remains adamant food safety standards require an overhaul, following a report on his study into GM food contents.

Professor Jack Heinemann of Canterbury University’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI) went public with his concerns over double stranded RNA (dsRNA)’s presence in food products earlier this year (Farmers Weekly, April 1).

That followed the release of his internationally peer-reviewed study in respected environmental journal Environment International.

His report raised concerns over the safety of using the GM molecule in foodstuffs. Increasingly dsRNA is being used in soy and wheat-based products, sometimes entering the food chain by way of stock feed products.

Heinemann has labelled the molecule the “snake oil of the 21st century” and his report raised significant concerns over how much risk assessment was being conducted here and in Australia over dsRNA use.

Two months on Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has released its report on Heinemann’s work.

The agency stated, based on the weight of scientific evidence published to date, it did not support the view small dsRNAs in food were likely to have adverse consequences for humans.

However that response has left Heinemann calling for closer scrutiny. He maintains stating a risk is “not likely” to exist means there is still a risk factor present worthy of examination.

“FSANZ is waiting for a weight of evidence that is either not appropriate for the testing of dsRNA, or simply in absence due to an absence of testing.”

Heinemann said there were three ways this could be changed. Either someone took court action against FSANZ, there was political pressure brought to bear, “or someone gets sick from it – that is you have evidence of harm. We say don’t wait for harm to occur”.

In its report FSANZ stated Heinemann and his colleagues had underestimated the strengths of the GM food safety assessment researchers to detect possible unintended effects of such technology.

However Heinemann said there were holes in how products were tested for safety.

“We know FSANZ does not require animal feeding studies of any kind for dsRNA.”

He urged the authority to be forthcoming in its interpretation of what could amount to risk.

He pointed to the effects of dsRNA in food shown through the development of dsRNAs intended to be toxic to animals, and forming the basis of new pesticides. Animal toxicity is often used as evidence for potential toxicity to humans.

He felt FSANZ reasoning was counter-intuitive to what commercial researchers were trying to achieve with the technology.

“If there was no scientific basis for assuming dsRNAs could have profound effects on human beings, then why by FSANZ’s own admission have there been so many attempts by the pharmaceutical industry to try and cause these effects?”

The authority noted in its report Heinemann had not accounted for humans ingesting naturally occurring dsRNAs without harm.

“But to extrapolate from the safe use of food with naturally occurring RNA, to engineered food also being safe, is wrong.”

He said proteins occurred naturally in food humans ate, but new proteins were evaluated for their potential toxicity before approval of use.

Heinemann said the whole issue of food safety assessment required closer scrutiny by New Zealand consumers, given decisions were made by Australian authorities under the joint food safety regulations.

“We only have one representative on the governing body, the same as Tasmania.”

He was also concerned about possible conflicts that could arise with food safety governance being run through Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), and the risk of food safety conflicting with trade goals.

FSANZ stated it would continue to monitor scientific literature for any new developments that might be relevant to genetically modified food risk assessment.

Heinemann acknowledged there were different ways to assess risk in foods containing dsRNA.

“However, at this time there is almost no experience with novel dsRNAs in food or other products, and no monitoring of effects in the people who have eaten them.”

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