US regulations

Food agencies in the USA

Foods are regulated by three bodies in the United States of America. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is concerned with food safety relating to new plant varieties, dairy products, seafood, food additives and processing aids, while the US Department of Agriculture regulates meat and poultry products as well as field testing of all genetically-modified plants. The US Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for 'pesticide chemicals' and it may therefore have to approve new plant varieties resistant to attack by pests. Of the three agencies, the policy of the FDA with respect to new plant varieties is most clearly defined at present.


Product, not process

The FDA regards the key factors in reviewing safety to be the characteristics of the food and its intended use, rather than the fact that new methods have been used in its production. This is a fundamental difference between the US regulations and those of the European Union, and lies at the root of much of the current controversy regarding GM foods.

Novel food products are not subject to special regulatory approval in the USA if the constituents of the food are the same or substantially similar to substances currently found in other foods (such as proteins, fats, oils and carbohydrates). For example, if a gene from a banana was transferred to a tomato, approval would not ordinarily be required before that food was placed on the market. However, if a sweetening agent that had never been an ingredient of any other food were added to a variety of grapefruit, then the novel food would need regulatory approval. The sweetener would be regarded as a 'food additive' and therefore be subject to other, more stringent, regulations.

Many GM foods in the USA are not subject to special regulation and they may not be segregated from non-modified foods. For commodity crops (such as soya and maize) imported into Europe, this can cause problems, since many such foods would have to be labelled under the EU novel foods regulation.

For imports into Europe, this problem has been resolved for maize and soya derived from GM plants by assuming that GM material will be present, unless the crop can be traced to a source which has been certified as free from GM material. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the UK has prepared lists of such sources, so that food manufacturers may choose GM-free suppliers.

However, this is only a temporary solution to a problem which is certain to widen as more GM crops are cultivated.

Copyright © The University of Reading, 1999
This page was revised last on: Tuesday, February 23, 1999
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