Food safety

Genetically modified foods in the 53rd World Health Assembly

The World Health Assembly is the governing body of WHO, convened in May each year and with the participation of WHO Member States. At the 53rd WHA food safety was an agenda item which included GM foods.

Resolution of the 53rd World Health Assembly, May 2000

"REQUESTS the Director-General:

(8) to ensure that the procedures for designating experts and preparing scientific opinions are such as to guarantee the transparency, excellence and independence of the opinions delivered;

(11) to support Member States in providing the scientific basis for health-related decision regarding genetically modified foods;"

In line with the above resolution, WHO issued the "Call for submission of applications for a roster of experts." In addition specific calls for experts were issued for each of the FAO/WHO Expert Consultations on Safety Assessments on GM Foods since the 53rd WHA meeting in May 2000.

Some of the background for the discussions at the 53rd WHA:

The GMO issue was hot in the mid 80's when the production of medical products (such as insulin) was initiated. A number of countries (mainly the ones where such production was imminent) produced new regulations to deal with genetic modification. This regulation was often based on a separation of contained use (production of insulin in tanks) and deliberate release (growing of GM tomatoes). The national and international discussions on the subject were heated but systems for safety assessment, looking into health and environmental effects were put in place in these countries. This provided a legal framework to enable the development and test release of GM foods.

However, when the actual products (tomatoes, maize, soy) hit the markets in the mid 90's the discussion re-emerged for the obvious reason that people started to realize that they would actually eat GM foods. At the same time both regulatory authorities and many industries were not prepared for these perceptional problems, and relied upon the systems already put in place.

Because of different national or regional regulatory systems (and philosophies) at the same time it became apparent that there was no real international agreement on the principles and the testing methods to be used. WHO and FAO have actually up through the 90's produced a number of Expert Consultation reports defining the principle of 'substantial equivalence' but this covers only (the easiest) part of the problem and does not cover testing methodology or foods that are changed dramatically. The lack of international agreement also resulted in a significant difference in the outcome of safety evaluations in different countries.