Telling the market you’re GMO free

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Putting aside the arguments for and against GMO food, the fact is that many consumers give it a big thumbs down. As Matthew McDonald writes, food makers stand to benefit from establishing that their products are GMO free.

Consumers want food that tastes good, is good for them and doesn’t cost too much. More and more, consumers are also hoping that their food is produced efficiently and with factors like the environment and global food security in mind.

Supporters and patent owners of genetically modified (GMO) foods claim such products can potentially address these issues right now.

Even so, many Australian consumers don’t want to eat them. The reason is simple. As multiple National surveys have proven, they don’t want to eat them because they don’t trust them.

The fears surrounding GMO food are many. While they may often be overblown, most have not been conclusively refuted by the scientific community.

The public health effects of GMO foods in areas like increased herbicide usage, allergens and antibiotic resistance may be slim, yet they have not been 100 per cent refuted. Despite all the best intentions, testing and legislation the whole story of GM, biodiversity and the intrinsic value of organisms is not set in stone.

As a consequence, consumers tend to approach GMO foods with caution.

“If you put two products side by side and they look the same, smell the same but one’s labelled as certified non GMO and the other one is a maybe you’ll probably sell more of the certified non GM,” Martin Stone Director of HACCP Australia and GMO-ID Australia told Food & Beverage Industry News.

Stone argues that it makes good sense for food makers to establish their products as Non-GMO.

GMO-ID Australia offers businesses in Australia and the Pacific Non-GMO certification, which allows them to do just this.

As Stone explained, the company also counts those who want to export to GMO sensitive markets, such as Europe and the UAE amongst its clients.

The aim of the Non-GMO programme is to provide businesses with independent, third-party certification verifying that their production and handling systems, identity preservation systems, quality systems, and internal controls result in food eligible to be called Non-GMO.

In addition, all clients certificated against the Non-GMO standard are listed on a directory which is used as a tool to connect buyers with suppliers and help clients raise their industry profiles.

GMO food in Australia

So how much GMO food are we consuming in Australia?

“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” said Stone. “It’s uncertain.”

“There’s a few different routes of GMO consumption in Australia. The first of those is legally approved GMO foods which are grown as crops and then highly refined and turned into some sort of food ingredient.”

He explained that, where all traces of the DNA have been removed in the refinement process, the products do not legally have to be labelled as GM.

“A good example is canola oil. There’s a great deal of GMO canola grown in Australia that’s turned into oil and then consumed. We don’t know exactly how much of this refined GMO material is used from both domestic and international sources.”

“The second route is where there’s a legally approved GMO product and that’s consumed whole or in a form that is not so highly refined. In that case it needs to be labelled.”

As mentioned, there are very few if any such products consumed in this country. “It’s almost pointless putting GMO soy on the market where you have to label it because people wouldn’t buy it,” said Stone.

The third route includes illegal products which are mostly grown overseas. The amount of such foods in this country is almost completely unknown.

“…European regulatory sources indicate that there’s a great deal of GMO rice floating round in the Chinese market and papaya out of Thailand is contaminated heavily with GMO papaya. So if you’re eating dry papaya in breakfast cereals or things like that it could well be there. These are illegal GMO products which have escaped into the market place,” he said.

Pointing to the number of GMO food applications currently before FSANZ, Stone said the GMO food market is growing. Applications include those for things like corn, soy, potatoes, wheat, sugar beet, and rice.

Testing

Testing is a key part of the certification process offered by GMO-ID.

In simple terms, genetic modification involves cutting a piece of DNA that bears a particular trait from one organism and inserting it into the DNA of another (target) organism.

“…you can imagine that DNA is a strand or a string. Basically when you make these GMO products you cut that string somewhere… You take out a little bit of it and then you replace it with a little bit of something else,” said Stone.

“When you put that additional genetic information in there there’s the join between the two ends of the string and at the join typically marker genes are found. And you can search for those marker genes which tell you that something (you don’t know what) but something has been put into the DNA strand at that particular point,” said Stone.

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Martin Stone, Director of HACCP Australia and GMO-ID Australia.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are used to do this. These involve firstly isolating and then multiplying DNA up to a level that makes it possible for DNA technicians to look for specific markers which tell them that the product is genetically modified.

“With legal genetically modified product that’s a relatively easy task because when you have a legal product, these are typically patented by large companies so you know what to look for…like a formulation if you like,” explained Stone.

“The illegal GMO products are a little bit more difficult but they still carry some classic markers that the DNA technicians looks for.”

PCR tests are accurate (down to about one part per million) and digital PCR testing, which is likely to soon be possible, should deliver Limits of Detection of around one part per billion.

Identity preservation

Apart from testing products to determine whether or not they are GMO free, the certification process also involves identity preservation. Given the complex global supply chains of today’s food industry, this is crucial.

As Stone put it, identity preservation means “…you know what’s happened to it, you know where it’s been, you know what it’s been mixed with and stored with and stored alongside all the way through the supply chain.”

“So you can guarantee that what started off as non-GMO finishes as non-GMO in the product that you use here in Australia.”

Considering that GMO foods are common in some parts of the world, identity preservation has to be robust. For example, in the US, a large amount of GMO Corn and GMO soy is grown. These crops yield many products used as ingredients by the food industry such as dextrose and proteins.

“If you are using a dextrose type product out of America then it’s had every opportunity to become infected with genetically modified material so you need a very good identity preservation system to be able to prove and control the non-GMO status,” said Stone.

Finally, asked if other non-GMO claims not involving certification by GMO-ID or a similar organisation can be trusted, Stone was adamant. “They can’t be,” he said.

“You see it around a little bit actually, where people have put non GMO in a small star or something similar on the label. That’s based on the fact that probably their ingredient suppliers don’t trigger the labelling requirements from  FSANZ in this country.

“We take a lot more thorough look at the whole process …so if you find that a product that is claiming to be non GMO actually does contain GMO material almost certainly it will be a self-declaring product, a non-certified product.”