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EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms - A Review of Results
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image Safety assessment of biotechnological processes and products in the agro-food area (SABAF)

Background and objectives

The Safety Assessment of Biotechnological Processes and Products in the Agro-Food Area (SABAF) was conceived to assess the impact and improve the safety of the use of genetically modified (GM) organisms in the community and the environment. Its aim is to reach a consensus within an international group of researchers, on performance and monitoring systems used in the assessment of biosafety of biotechnological processes and products, and on safe biotechnological production processes and equipment. Attention is focused on risks associated with both modern biotechnology involving GM organisms, and with 'classical' products and processes.

This project addressed the use of GM organisms with respect to food safety, occupational safety and communication of knowledge about GM organisms to the general public.

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Approach and methodology

Seven 2-3 day workshops were organised between 1995 and 1997. Each was attended by 20-35 participants from research institutes, universities, industry and consumer organisations, from 6-10 European Union countries. The seven workshops were:

1. Legislation related to biotechnological agro-food processes and products.

2. Rapid techniques for detection/enumeration of biological materials.

3. Safety issues in work places where biological agents are handled.

4. Allergenicity and toxicity; safety/pathogenicity of micro-organisms.

5. Hygiene monitoring systems for equipment and microbial air contamination.

6. Safety evaluation of novel and transgenic crops.

7. Final workshop. Conclusions and communication of results to non-scientists.

Conclusions were communicated at international and national conferences, to expert groups, at European and national biosafety training courses, and in annual progress reports and workshop proceedings.

Main findings and outcome

Three major issues were examined in the area of food safety. Firstly, microbial infections occur largely due to a lack of understanding of the major risks and a lack of appropriate guidelines, standards and testing methods. TNO and other project partners have initiated a major Thematic Network in the 5th Framework Programme - HYFOMA, QLK1-2000-01359 - for the development and adoption of standards to ensure hygienic and safe food production. Hyfoma includes also a broader educational programme. Secondly, the risks of being affected by known allergens, e.g. egg, milk and wheat proteins, is far higher than that of being affected by potentially allergenic proteins of GM foods. This risk increases as food proteins are increasingly used as 'functional' ingredients outside their traditional product range (e.g. wheat gluten in meat products). It is strongly recommended that future research focuses on increasing the basic understanding of known allergens and allergenicity. Finally, more detailed guidelines for safety evaluations were recommended (i.e. the approach recommended by ILSI).

Occupational risks of 'high-tech', modern biotechnological processes appear to be far lower than those of 'low-tech' processes, such as farming, artisan bread baking, and waste sorting, where large numbers of workers in the European Union have developed occupational allergies. Training and education of workers and management, and the introduction of low-cost measures to avoid the exposure of workers to biological materials, need to be a high priority in 'low-tech' processes. SABAF discussions on monitoring methods, particularly for airborne biological materials, will lead to improved recommendations.

A crucial aspect of research into GM organisms is the effective communication of the results to the general public. Experts need to take into account that perceived risks are 'socially constructed', and that disparities between expert and lay perceptions are frequently observed. To provide adequate information to the public, it is essential that the psychological characteristics which determine risk perception be understood. Consumer organisations are being faced with plausible but opposing opinions (e.g. industry versus non-governmental organisations), notably in discussions on environmental risks of GM crops. Clearly, more information and discussion between the conflicting parties is essential.


The present evaluations of GM products in Europe are unclear, which is leading to a strong negative discrimination of GM crops compared with classically bred crops. This highlights the need for the effective communication of information in this area. 'Classical' risks are of comparable, if not larger, magnitude to those of modern biotechnology. Therefore, legislation as well as the development of new, efficient assessment methods should focus on areas with high safety risks. Risks associated with modern biotechnology need to be considered in the context of those of classical products and processes. The presence of people with widely varying backgrounds in SABAF workshops, has contributed to the flow of information across and within member states and has strengthened the biosafety network in the European Union.


Major publication

Van der Kamp J.W., Havenaar R. (eds.), Safety Assessment of Biotechnological Processes and Products in the Agro-Food Area, Proceedings of Workshops 1-7 (7 volumes).
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Contract number

January 1995 - December 1997

J.W. van der Kamp
TNO Nutrition and Food Research
Zeist (NL)





H. Lelieveld
Unilever Research Laboratory
Vlaardingen (NL)

I.W. Stewart

AEA Technology
Didcot (UK)

B. Hüsing
Fraunhofer institute of Systemtechnik und Innovationsforschung
Karlsruhe (DE)

O. Käppeli
Basel (CH)

C. Meredith
TNO BIBRA International
Carshalton (UK)

K.J. Heller
Bundesanstalt für Milchforschung
Kiel (DE)

J. Holah
Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association
Chipping Camden (UK)

A.M. Bennett
PHLS Center for Applied Microbiology and Research (CAMR)
Salisbury (UK)

L. Nersting
Danish Technology Institute
Taastrup (DK)

O. Cerf
Massy (FR)

C.V. Bruschi
International Centre Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology
Trieste (IT)

N. Klein
Ede (NL)

D. Coenen
DSM-Gist Brocades BV
Delft (NL)

U. Rönner
Swedish Institute for Food Research
Göteborg (SE)

G. Hauser
Technische Universität München (DE)

O. Doblhoff-Dier
University of Agriculture
Vienna (AT)

T. Mattila-Sandholm
VTT Biotechnology & Food Research
Espoo (FI)

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