By Peter O'Donnell

BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - "The current authorization procedure for the commercial release of genetically modified organisms [GMOs], including those which may end up in the food chain, has ground to a standstill," according to an advance copy of the working document from the European Commission, which is currently preparing draft legislation on traceability and labeling of GMOs and products derived from GMOs.

But the Commission paper shows some caution over the risks of imposing too much regulation to appease consumer anxieties.

The paper poses the question of how to find the right balance, given that "although so far no peer-reviewed scientific article reporting adverse effects on human health as a consequence of eating GM food has appeared and GMOs have to undergo a comprehensive scientific assessment of risks to human health and the environment before receiving Community authorization, the public is increasingly concerned about potential implications for human health and the environment."

The European Commission paper examines a wide range of options for introducing traceability and labeling requirements into EU rules. But it also suggests caution over imposing excessive requirements. "Unforeseen environmental effects, such as harm to nontarget organisms, may arise from the release of GMOs, such as genetically modified crop plants. However, unforeseen environmental effects are unlikely to occur in the case of products derived from GMOs, such as the flour derived from genetically modified maize grains, where processing results in 'non-viable' genetic material," it said.

Similarly, it said, thought should be given as to whether specific traceability is required for products derived from GMOs for the purpose of withdrawing products in the event of an unforeseen problem arising from consumption of material from GMO origin. Premarket approval of products derived from GMOs as provided for in the EU's existing Novel Foods Regulation normally would provide for necessary safety assurance, it argued.

And although one of the objectives of traceability would be to facilitate monitoring of possible long-term and unintended health effects associated with particular foodstuffs, the exercise is not so simple as it may appear, the Commission counseled: "It is widely recognized that little is known about the long-term effects of any food, making the identification of health effects that might be unique to GM foods problematical. Postmarket monitoring does not automatically prove a direct causal relationship between the occurrence of an adverse human health effect and the consumption of a particular food. During the premarket risk assessment of a food derived from GMOs, the need for postmarket monitoring is normally examined on a case-by-case basis. It is generally recognized that such measures would be most useful in monitoring effects of genetically modified/engineered foods that are significantly different from their conventional counterpart."

And although "various surveys and policy statements by European consumer organizations indicate a strong demand for a more complete labeling scheme that can provide the consumer with a choice," and "consumers consider it to be misleading that some products are labeled and others not," the Commission aims to assess the feasibility and merit of knee-jerk regulation as a response.

It noted that some food business operators, in a bid to meet consumer demands, decided to voluntarily label GM products even though they were not obliged to do so under current EU legislation. But others, it pointed out, particularly in the retail sector, have removed GM food products from supermarket shelves and required suppliers to guarantee that products originate from non-GMO sources.

The Commission plans to complete its work in time to make a proposal before the end of the year.