US: Biotech testing falls short

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Biotechnology

When representatives from around the world gather this week in
Montreal to debate an international convention on biotechnology,
the US will be making its case that current testing methods to
detect trace amounts of genetically modified substances in food
products are unreliable and unnecessary.

The problem leaves food producers and suppliers to EU countries exposed to the risk of regulatory and economic sanctions if such tests do not pick up the presence of GM substances in their products, according to an advisory committee to the US agriculture department on biotechnology.

Uncertainties as to liability transfer and exclusions for biotechnology-related claims by some insurance companies for certain portions of the food supply chain may have significant impacts on exports, thecommittee states in a report it issued earlier this month​.

The committee is made up of academics, companies involved in food production, farmers and non-governmental organisations, said the executive secretary to the committee, Michael Schechtman.

"Many of the requirements (on biotech labelling and tracking) do not match the ability of current testing methods to detect their presence or do not yield consistent results,"​ he said in an interview with

The possibility exists that a grain product grown from compliant seed, delivered as compliant grain to a processing facility, processed to produce a compliant grain product, and incorporated into the finished food will not test "in compliance" under another testing programme, the committee states in its report.

" The complexity of complying with multiple labeling and traceability requirements that differ by market and country imposes additional costs and inefficiencies on the supply chain,"​ the biotech committee states. "Some tracing and labeling requirements are uncertain, the systems in some countries are rapidly evolving and some systems lack specifics about what constitutes compliance. This increases commercial challenges for the production, marketing, and trade of grain and grain products."

In the absence of international standards and the harmonisation of testing methods between regulatory authorities, there is significant variability associated with testing grain and food testing for transgenic content, the committee states.

"Testing of the same product may produce different results under different test methodologies, at different places in the production chain, or in the final food. As such, there are commercial risks associated with supplying transgenic (or non-transgenic) ingredients based upon testing results,"​ the report states.

The US' criticism at the meeting will target the EU, which has implemented tough rules requiring the identification of all GM substances on a product's label. Producers and suppliers within and to the EU must also be able to document the origin, the participants, the steps and the handling involved in the production of a GM food or feed product.

The EU requires that all food be tracked and labelled if it contains 0.9 per cent or more traceable GM content, along with derivatives such as paste and ketchup from a GM tomato. The US neither requires that labels of food and feed products derived from genetically engineered plants. Food producers do not need to indicate the method by which the plants were produced nor are required to specific trace biotechnology products through the food and feed chain.

Without harmonisation and standardization it will remain difficult to practically determine whether products are in compliance with a specific tolerance such as that imposed by the EU, the US committee states.

"Which test results take precedence in the movement of grain or grain products needs to be clarified,"​ the committee states. "Mutual recognition of testing and sampling methods may enable downstream parties to accept testing at the origin of a grain or grain product without the need for additional testing. Development and recognition of testing certificates would reduce the commercial risks along the supply chain."

Buried in the report is the committee's call for more US co-operation with international bodies and regulators, a recommendation that runs against the grain of current US government policy.

"The development of international standards for test methods and the mutual recognition of reference materials would reduce the variability in testing related to international trade of grain and grain products with respect to transgenic materials,"​ the committee states in its report. "Reducing the variability between and within test methods will increase the predictability of testing compliance in these products and reduce the commercial risks associated with these products. Theavailability of internationally accepted methods may be facilitated through international organizations and formal and informal cooperation between industry and government organizations within countries."

This testing issue is associated with the lack of "predictability" in the marketplace, the committee's members state. The lack of predictability in available testing methods creates commercial risk. This means that a given product may not predictably test within the specification of the contract all along the supply chain. The different results may not be associated with commingling of the product with transgenic commodity material, but rather with the statistics of sampling or differences in the sampling method, testing strategies, or capabilities ofspecific test methods.

Perhaps US compliance may come through the backdoor anyway. Some US food suppliers have already put methods in place to meet the EU's standards, the committee notes. Some seed industry and grower associations have developed informational systems to attempt to channel these products in markets where they are approved and attempt to exclude them from markets where they are not yet approved.

For example, the Market Choices certification programme in the US was developed by the seed industry to provide a distinctive symbol for producers to identify which corn hybrids possess traits not yet approved for export to the EU and should be marketed in specific channels.

Several traceability systems are evolving from both ends of the supply chain. The software being offered ranges in price from $150,000 to $4 million (€120,000 to €3.2m) depending on the depth of data needed. Systems that are designed from the farm level capture all details from type of seed, agronomic practices, handling, lists of all parties who dumped into common bin and unit numbers all the way to door-of-plant or feeding location.

Related topics: Food safety and labeling

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