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EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms - A Review of Results
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image European network safety assessment of genetically modified food crops

Background and objectives

Application of recombinant DNA technology in modern plant breeding has resulted in the development of plants with improved agronomic properties. Food crops have been modified through the introduction of new agronomic traits or suppression of constituent genes which code for disease or pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, or inhibition of ripening. In the United States and Canada, approximately 40 genetically modified (GM) food crops have been introduced on the market, while in Europe, nine GM crops have obtained regulatory approval. Market introduction of GM food crops in Europe has given rise to broad public concern based on two facts. Firstly, there is a lack of familiarity with the new molecular techniques which are applied. Secondly, the fact that the genetic material of these plants (which are used for human consumption), has been altered in a manner which would not be found to occur naturally by way of reproduction or natural recombination. Some consumers also have ethical concerns about genetic modification. Hazards of large-scale cultivation of GM plants and of chronic exposure of humans and animals to GM food, are issues of intense debate.

The several aims of this project include the identification of key issues of the safety evaluation of GM food crops, and also the examination of whether current research methods are adequate to characterise specific safety hazards. It will also coordinate ongoing research regarding safety testing of transgenic foods in the framework of the European research programme FP5. The project aims to design sensitive and specific new (in vitro) test methodologies for the evaluation of the safety and nutrition of whole complex foods. In addition, the risks of gene transfer from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the gut microflora of humans and animals will be examined. Likewise, new strategies for the detection of the presence of genetic modifications at specific threshold levels of raw materials, processed products and food ingredients in GM foods will also be studied. It will also examine the fate of GM raw materials and processed products throughout food production chains (tracking and tracing), and develop criteria for quality assurance systems to guarantee 'non-GMO-containing' materials throughout food chains. Finally, the project intends to develop a communication platform of producers of GMOs, scientists involved in the research and safety evaluation of GMOs, retailers, regulatory authorities and consumer groups, with the scope to improve safety assessment procedures, risk management strategies and risk communication.

  Micro-array (DNA chip). image Micro-array (DNA chip).
  AFLP fingerprint. image AFLP fingerprint.
  Field of rape seed. image Field of rape seed.
  Petri dish with callus and developing plants. image Petri dish with callus and developing plants.

Approach and methodology

Four working groups will be formed with specific tasks to review and evaluate relevant aspects of safety evaluation, risk management and risk communication regarding GM foods and food ingredients. Members of the groups are experts from different scientific and socio-economic disciplines and coordinators of the associated research projects. They will meet regularly and prepare position papers (review documents on the state of the art and new developments in this area). These papers will be discussed and integrated into one position document by the Integrated Discussion Platform, consisting of members of the working groups and invited experts from academia, industry, regulatory organisations and consumer groups. Two meetings of the Integrated Discussion Platform (Mid-term Workshop) will also be organised. In a Final Workshop, conclusions and recommendations will be presented.

Main findings and outcome

As a result of the action of the working groups, several issues will be addressed such as whether current assessment strategies for GMOs are adequate to establish their biosafety with respect to chronic exposure of humans and animals to foods and food products respectively. Other specific issues that need to be considered relate to the nature of the technology applied. These deserve particular attention with respect to the biosafety assessment of GMOs, such as the use of the antibiotic resistance marker gene. It also should help to assess whether current analytical and toxicological test methods are of sufficient specificity and sensitivity to characterise hazards of newly expressed gene products, and to identify potential changes in the composition of GM food crops as a result of genetic modification (so-called 'unintended effects'). Another important issue is whether the safety testing of whole foods has been improved and alternative methods which could be developed. Possible detection methods for identifying GM foods and food ingredients and appropriate thresholds will also be determined. The results should also shed light on whether quality control systems which are based on administrative or other procedures are sufficient for tracing GMO materials throughout the food chain. Finally, the project will address whether supply systems can be designed to guarantee 'GMO-free' foods, how transparency in risk assessment and risk management can be improved, and which criteria should be used to develop a strategy for proper risk communication.


This project should help to provide information on several issues relating to the biosafety of GMOs employed in the food industry. The findings of the working groups will hopefully be useful for the application of GMOs in agriculture.

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Thematic network

Contract number

February 2000 - February 2003

H.A. Kuiper
State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products (RIKILT)
Wageningen (NL)

Project website address



A.M.R. Gatehouse
University of Newcastle (UK)

H.P.J.M. Noteborn,
A.A.C.M. Peijnenburg,
E.J. Kok, H.J.M. Aarts,
J.P.P.F. van Rie

State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products (RIKILT)
Wageningen (NL)

I. Knudsen, M. Poulsen,
B.B.L. Lund Jacobsen,
B. Holst

Institute of Food Safety and Toxicology
Søborg (DK)

J.J. Leguay
CEA Cadarache
Paris (FR)

G. van den Eede
Joint Research Center
Ispra (IT)

H. Pichler
Center for Analytical Chemistry/IFA
Tulln (AT)

I.J. Colquhoun, L. Frewer
Institute of Food Research
Norwich (UK)

A. Chesson, H.J. Flint
Rowett Research Institute
Aberdeen (UK)

R. Crevel
Unilever Research Colworth
Sharnbrook Bedford (UK)

M. Miraglia
Istituto Superiore di Sanità
Rome (IT)

J.M. Wal, C. Creminon
Laboratoire Associé INRA-CEA d'Immuno-Allergie Alimentaire
Gif-sur-Yvette (FR)

R. Grafström
Institute of Environmental Medicine
Stockholm (SE)

K-H. Engel
Freising-Weihenstephan (DE)

F. Cellini
Metapontum Agrobios
Metaponto (IT)

V. Beekman
Agricultural Economics Research Institute
Den Haag (NL)

J.W van der Kamp,
A. Penninks,
J. van der Vossen

TNO Nutrition and Food Research
Zeist (NL)

D. Pittouras
KEPKA Western Greece
Patras (GR)

H. Davies
The Scottish Crop Research Institute
Dundee (UK)

H.J. Buhk
Robert Koch Institut
Berlin (DE)

J. Kleiner
International Life Sciences Institute ILSI Europe
Brussels (BE)

J. Zagon, M. Schauzu
Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine
Berlin (DE)

W.P. Hammes
University of Hohenheim
Stuttgart (DE)

H. Schimmel
Joint Research Centre
Geel (BE)

B. Kettlitz
Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC)
Brussels (BE)

S. Kärenlampi
University of Kuopio (FI)

A.L. Schmid
Public & Environmental Affairs
Zaandam (NL)

A. König
Monsanto Service International
Brussels (BE)

A. Constable
Nestlé Research Centre
Lausanne (CH)

A. Holst-Jensen
National Veterinary Institute
Oslo (NO)

P. Rüdelsheim
Aventis Crop Science N.V.
Gent (BE)

M. Smith
Unilever Health Institute
Vlaardingen (NL)

AgreVo UK Limited
Saffron Walden (UK)

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