A particularly active debate on biotechnology is taking place in Switzerland. Dr Martin Schrott from the Swiss Federal Health Office looks at the current legal framework in the food sector.
As with conventional foods, the state has two primary duties concerning foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMO): to protect public health and to protect the consumer against deception. Health protection is assured by the obligatory authorisation procedure, while deception is prevented by a comprehensive labelling law. Supervision by state authorities ensures compliance with these regulations.
Food that contains or consists wholly or in part of GMOs can only be marketed in Switzerland after it has been proven that, in the light of current scientific knowledge, it poses no danger to health. This applies not only to foodstuffs per se, but also to additives and processing aids. Each GMO is assessed individually, and a large amount of data is examined during the approval procedure. The manufacturer of a GMO product has to submit an application giving detailed information concerning the modification and the characteristics of the GMO. Comparison of the modified organism with the conventional organism, i.e. evaluation of substantial equivalence of the products, plays a pivotal role. Health and safety considerations receive particular attention, including sensitive aspects such as potential allergenicity, toxicity, antibiotic resistance and horizontal gene transfer. An approval is granted for a period of five years.
Protection against deception
The vast majority of Swiss consumers consider labelling to be very important. GMO products have to be labelled, allowing the consumer to make an informed choice.
The GM labelling is wide-ranging. If ingredients obtained from GMOs are used it has to be indicated after the ingredient’s name. The food manufacturer is thus obliged to establish whether or not the raw materials contain GMO constituents.
There are two exceptions to the labelling requirement. Firstly, precisely defined substances that are extracted or refined from the GMO, e.g. refined soya oil, do not have to be labelled because they cannot be distinguished from a conventional product.
Secondly, a labelling threshold was introduced in the new labelling regulation in 1999. The sensitive analytical methods allow the detection of tiny amounts of GMO that might be present unintentionally in conventional food. Without a labelling threshold, such foods would have to be labelled as genetically modified. This would mislead the consumer about the true nature of the product. The declaration limit, fixed at 1%, provides clarity. The value of 1%, is based on the demands of consumer organisations for a low limit, and also on the experience of food testing laboratories, which have found that the involuntary presence is in the order of well under 1%. An on-going research program will determine the extent to which mixing in foods along the processing chain is inevitable.
Provisions relating to the “produced without genetic engineering” claim are also specified. A comprehensive control of the entire production process is required. Documented evidence must provide proof that the product was not manufactured from GMOs,
and that no GMOs were used in production. The latter requirement applies especially to products of animal origin such as meat or milk where no feeding stuffs containing GMOs are permitted. In addition, the ingredients of “produced without genetic engineering” foods may contain only trace amounts of GMO and never more than 1%.
Whereas the responsibility for issuing approvals and supervision rests with the Federal authorities, it is the Canton laboratories which are responsible for controlling compliance with the law. However, as part of the self-monitoring process, it is the duty of the manufacturer and/or importer of a food to ensure that only approved GMO products are marketed, and that these are correctly labelled.