Japan to bring in mandatory tests for GM foods

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Keeping it ‘natural’: The Japanese public are growing hostile towards GM food. Credit: DAVID BARTRUFF/CORBIS

Japan's Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW) announced last week that tests on the potential health risks of genetically modified (GM) foods will be mandatory from April 2001. Such tests are currently carried out on a voluntary basis.

The ministry also announced that foods considered ‘safe’ would be labelled. But how this should be done is still under discussion, and the MHW says it is uncertain whether the labels would actually indicate safety, or whether they would take a similar approach to that announced earlier this year by the country's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

MAFF's draft regulations, released in August (see Nature 400, 605; 1999), require 30 food products containing GM ingredients to be labelled as such. Products with a mixture of GM and non-GM ingredients must be labelled as ‘undifferentiated’.

Although the MHW hopes to include food safety in its labelling, many think that the two ministries should first unite their currently separate regulation systems.

The health ministry also intends to require more detailed tests on the possible toxicity and allergenicity of GM organisms. The current guidelines give only a general outline of the safety tests. In contrast, the proposed evaluation system gives specific details of the assessment procedures.

Mandatory testing of GM products means that the evaluation of new GM foods would be halted until April 2001. This is expected to affect the commercialization of several products that have passed safety evaluation, including DuPont's soybeans enriched with oleic acid. But it may speed up the approval of GM products and improve their image with the public.

Most Japanese food manufacturers have abandoned GM ingredients. Major breweries, such as Kirin Beer, Suntory and Asahi Beer, have decided to make their beer GM-free. Ajinomoto, Japan's largest food-additive manufacturer, last week said it was to stop using GM soybeans in its products.

Kirin Beer has also abandoned its research into GM tomatoes, although the company says that it has spent very little money on the project, which uses technology developed by Calgene, the US agribiotechnology company.

Kirin no longer plans to do research on GM food, although it will continue research into other crops. Kagome, which makes processed food, says it has no plans to commercialize its products, but will continue its research. But Japan Tobacco hopes to bring to market its GM rice, which was approved in 1998.

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Uozum, Y. Japan to bring in mandatory tests for GM foods. Nature 402, 846 (1999) doi:10.1038/47156

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