Experts Set Global Guidelines for Biotech Food Risks

YOKOHAMA, Japan - A group of international food experts on Friday agreed on a framework for assessing the risks of biotech foods, establishing global guidelines that could help shape countries' food policies and influence trade disputes, Reuters reports.

Governments and groups from 34 countries concluded three days of talks near Tokyo with a landmark set of criteria for judging the possible hazards of foods as diverse as pest-proof potatoes and DNA-modified yogurt.

"What it means is that from a scientific point of view there is international agreement about how these foods can be assessed," an official from the U.S. delegation told Reuters. "The standard we were looking for here was to make sure that foods that are developed by new techniques are as safe as the foods that consumers already have."

Officials hailed the guidelines as an objective basis for evaluating the risks of genetically modified (GM) foods at a time when countries are increasingly at odds over biotechnology.

GM crops have caught on like wildfire among producers in the United States, the world's top grain exporter, with the government certifying the crops as both safe to eat and harmless to the environment.

Other governments are more skeptical. The European Union has placed a moratorium on approvals of GM foods since 1998, while Japan plans to tighten GM regulations and ban trade in unapproved biotech crops for use in livestock feed.

"It's a matter that is important for the whole world, and it's a matter that's being regulated and solved by the whole world," Mexican delegate Samuel Vargas told Reuters. "The working of this group...can give any country very important parameters and standards that can be considered in national policies."

The guidelines were hammered out by a task force of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint body of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization charged with setting food standards.

With members from more than 160 countries, Codex sets non-binding recommendations that are often used in international trade disputes, including World Trade Organization negotiations.

The entire set of recommendations will be presented for adoption by the Codex commission in Rome in July.
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