The issue of genetic engineering has always been a very controversial one. The cloning of Dolly the sheep was hailed as a revolutionary breakthrough by scientists while many groups were sceptical about its repercussions. Only recently however has the topic of genetically creating and modifying foods come to public attention. Despite the relative youth of the issue, it has caused much debate among various groups worldwide. As of now, there is no legislation in Australia prohibiting the selling of genetically modified or produced food. This is greatly due to the numerous and varied arguments in favour of and against genetically modifying foods.

There is however legislation pertaining to GM foods by way of the Food Standards Code. The Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) completed in 1998 its assessment of the proposal to establish a standard to regulate food produced using gene technology. ANZFA recommended to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council (ANZFSC) that it adopt the standard into the Food Standards Code. In Australia, the standard (Standard A 18) was gazetted as Amendment #40 to the Food Standards Code published on the 13 th of August 1998. This standard made it illegal to sell any food produced using gene technology unless an application was made to the ANZFA and approval subsequently given by the ANZFSC.

ANZFA had several reasons for recommending the standard. The main reason was that it felt that the then regulatory framework was inadequate to ensure that foods produced using gene technology underwent a safety assessment before they were released onto the market. The standard also establishes a mechanism whereby consumers can be confident that the safety of foods produced using gene technology would be fully assessed before they are made available for sale. Industry would also be provided with a clear, regulatory pathway for the assessment of food produced using gen technology.

The final reason given by ANZFA was that consumers would have access to accurate information, including labelling, on foods produced using gene technology. The standard prescribes mandatory labelling for foods that contain new and altered genetic material and which are not substantially equivalent to their conventional counterparts in a characteristic or property of the food. Where the standard specifies that a food produced using gene technology must be labelled, the label must indicate the biological origin and nature of the characteristic modified. This last regulation has proved to be very controversial in Australia as much debate still surrounds the issue of the mandatory labelling of GM foods. The managing director of the ANZFA, Mr Ian Linden mayer, said that he could see many reasons why the mandatory labelling of GM foods could cause difficulties. He said mandatory labelling would incur costs to manufacturers that would be necessarily passed on to consumers.

Any price rises would impair poorer peoples ability to by nutritious food, he said. Despite these grievances, no authority on the issue is yet to make any concerted effort to determine the cost of labelling. Nor have they asked manufacturers to make any estimates on the cost impact of labelling. Many people believe however that if labelling is not enforced, people will not be able to make informed choices about what they eat. It is therefore not surprising that groups have attacked a food standards draft code that will drop the prescriptive standards for food products. At the heart of consumer concerns are fears the planned changes could lead to cat, dog and other animal meat being included with meat products.

Though many have rejected such claims as nonsense, the Australian Consumers Association (ACA) supports the claim standards which only require meat to be considered safe for human consumption would technically make it possible to include any form of meat. This could also lead to such wonders as fruitless jam or sausages to be filled with offal and cooked prawns instead of meat. ANZFA spokes man Michael Dack counters that the new code would provide greater freedom of choice for manufacturers and consumers and that legislation covering fair-trading and misleading advertising would be adequate to protect consumers. A national survey of nine hundred and fifty people in April found that sixty-eight per cent of adults were unhappy about eating GM foods. Ninety per cent of people surveyed felt that foods containing any modified ingredients should be labelled accordingly. This gives even more support to the case for the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.

Whatever the merits of the arguments interpreting the standards, the message from this and similar recent debates is that consumers demand transparency and clarity when it comes to the content and origin of food and the way it is labelled. The hysteria which has often dominated the GM foods debate should act as a warning signal for those authorities determining food content standards. Ultimately further genetic modification of food will almost certainly be necessary to allow the future global population to be adequately fed. Still, this is not an excuse for people to be anything but fully informed on what they are eating. Similarly, while there is nothing inherently wrong with altering food standards, people must be informed enough when they set out to buy food to reject it if they are concerned about its content, origin or quality. There are many groups who believe that genetic modification and production of food is a necessity if famine is to be stopped in developing nations.

Millions of people around the world would starve if genetically modified foods were banned in Australia, according to the New South Wales Agriculture Minister, Mr Pat McNamara. Mr McNamara believes that Australian farmers will be unable to meet the international demand for food crops unless they are permitted to increase yields through genetic modification. The Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics report affirms this thought, There is a compelling moral imperative to make genetically modified foods readily available to developing countries who want them to help combat world hunger and poverty. This report also predicts that the production of foods genetically could help feed an extra 2. 5 billion people in developing nations by the year 2025. Proponents of GM foods say there are huge benefits in terms of higher yields at lower costs and with less need of pesticides and fertilisers.

Opponents however believe that GM foods pose great risks to public health, biodiversity and the independence of farmers. What is probably closer to the truth is that genetic modification will produce some good results and some that are disturbing or of inconclusive benefit before there is agreement on what is aesthetically acceptable, environmentally responsible and ethically permissible in the application of this type of biotechnology. One thing is for sure; knowledge, once learnt, can never be unlearn t. Once the technology has been harnessed, a whole new argument about control, providing safeguards and responsibility begins. Although labelling is one way to exercise control, provide safeguards and encourage responsibility, it alone obviously does not solve all problems associated with GM foods. Ultimately a balance must be struck not only between academic freedom, commercial interest and the wellbeing of consumers, but also between human knowledge and human wisdom..