Expanded commercial production of biotech crops around the world has led to a need for an information sharing process when trace amounts of a biotech event approved in one country is present in a commodity imported by a country that has not approved the event. The Codex Alimentarius Commission recently approved an Annex to its Plant Guidelines to share data and information to make science based food safety assessments.

The recent G-8 leaders’ statement on global food security included a position on biotechnology, “we will promote science-based risk analysis including on the contribution of seed varieties developed through biotechnology.” The Codex guidelines can provide a way to link science-based risk analysis to the day-to-day trade in agricultural commodities and food products.

The Codex Alimentarius (Latin for food law or code) Commission was established in 1963 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the World Health Organization to protect consumers and promote fair practices in food trade through science-based regulations. Over 170 countries are now members of what is commonly called the Codex Commission. The Commission had its 31st session on June 31-July 4 in Geneva, Switzerland. Members are not required to adhere to all Codex guidelines, but the guidelines are increasingly a way to find common ground on complex food safety issues.

The preamble to the Annex explains that it can be applied in two dietary exposure situations. The first one involves commodities like grains and oilseeds where the unauthorized biotech presence is likely to be diluted by commingling of material and be present at low levels in individual servings of food. The second situation is fruits and vegetables consumed whole and undiluted, but where repeated consumption is expected to be low. In both situations the dietary exposure would be lower than the minimums in food safety assessments.

The preamble also notes that the Annex does not address risk management issues in that national governments would decide if the biotech presence is low enough to use the provisions of the Annex and how to use it within their regulatory systems. The Annex also does not eliminate the responsibilities of exporters to meet relevant requirements of importing countries.

Codex members are to make data and information available at a publicly accessible central database maintained by the FAO. This should allow rapid access by Codex members of information needed for food safety assessments. Legitimate concerns about the confidentiality of commercial and industrial information have to be addressed. As new scientific information that would impact the food safety assessment becomes available it would be added to the database.

The guidelines were welcomed by industry participants. The Biotechnology Industry Organization representing biotechnology companies and related groups in the U.S. and 30 other countries stated in a press release, “Adoption of guidance related to food safety assessments of low-level presence is essential to facilitate international trade while regulating incidental or trace amounts of biotechnology events in food and feed products. This new guidance recognizes that low-level presence is a natural part of plant biology, seed production and the distribution of commodity crops, and it can be managed in ways that ensure food safety and minimize trade disruptions.”

Analysts have already begun speculating about which countries will be the first to adopt the guidelines. To no surprise, adoption is expected first in Asian countries with growing populations and increasing amounts of imported food. The EU is not likely to adopt the guidelines because of its use of the precautionary principle which focuses more on risks than benefits of policy changes related to food safety. The American Soybean Association recently suggested to the EU Commission that permitting low-level presence of biotech traits approved in other countries is a practical way of dealing with its slowness in approving biotech crops.

Recent media reports indicate that China has made a decision to fully embrace biotech crops to increase food production. China has had Bt rice waiting for commercial use for several years partly over the issue of small amounts of Bt rice that could be mixed with non-Bt rice and affect the limited amount of Chinese rice that enters international markets. China has also completed extensive research on other biotech crops that could be traded. The current period of high rice prices could encourage other Asian countries to accelerate research in higher yielding Bt rice. India also has completed extensive research on biotech crops and should be comfortable with the science associated with food safety assessments of biotech crops.

As the situation with BSE and beef trade has shown, having an international group (the World Organization for Animal Health or OIE) establish guidelines does not automatically resolve food safety concerns. It only provides a science-based framework to move discussions another step toward resolution. The Codex guidelines are strictly voluntary and national governments make the determination on when to apply them.

The Codex guidelines on trace amounts of biotech crops may benefit from good timing. A few years ago when agricultural commodity supplies were large and prices low, it was easier for food importing countries to avoid making complex, science-based decisions on food safety. Now those decisions are much more important, and the Codex guidelines can provide the scientific framework for addressing consumer safety and health concerns while expanding trade in biotech crops to meet the growing demand for food.