Unauthorised GM rice product found and withdrawn

30 July 2008

New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) has ensured the withdrawal of a rice product imported into New Zealand that has tested positive for trace quantities of the unauthorised genetically modified (GM) rice variety, Bt63. NZFSA is not aware of any health concerns for the product, however, Bt63 is not approved for sale in food in New Zealand as it has not had a Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) safety assessment.

The importer of the affected product has been contacted and has undertaken to voluntarily remove any remaining product from sale and ensure that further imports meet New Zealand standards.

NZFSA began testing rice products available to New Zealand consumers in March 2008 following an announcement earlier this year by the European Commission (EC) and the UK Food Standards Agency (UKFSA) that they were working to address the presence of the GM rice variety Bt63 in rice products imported from China.

Given the situation in Europe, the fact that New Zealand imports significant amounts of similar rice products annually, and as Bt63 is not approved under Standard 1.5.2 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, NZFSA tested a range of such products available in New Zealand to determine whether there was a compliance issue here.

Fourteen samples were taken of the types of products which had triggered the EC response. Of these samples one product – imported rice vermicelli – contained trace quantities of Bt63. GM trace indicators were found in 10 other samples at or below the level of detection and these are being investigated to clarify their source.

The UKFSA has noted that it is not aware of any specific health implications for consumers who eat rice products containing Bt63 (http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2008/mar/rice). Based on knowledge of the GM component (called a transgene) in the rice, NZFSA also considers it unlikely that consumption of Bt63 rice at the trace levels identified in New Zealand poses a public health risk.

NZFSA is further investigating this particular instance and is developing an enhanced programme to monitor and verify compliance with New Zealand requirements. NZFSA is also working closely with authorities in China. China prohibits the export of GM rice and tests all exports for the presence of GM product in export shipments. NZFSA is therefore working with the relevant Chinese authorities to identify the source of this particular import into New Zealand and to track down how GM rice came to be detected in this shipment.

When the original concerns were raised and samples were collected, importers of rice products were reminded that only approved GM products can be sold in New Zealand and that any food containing GM ingredients must be appropriately labelled. NZFSA is contacting importers again to advise them that Bt63 has been identified and alert them to the types of products that may be affected. They are also reminded of their obligations under the Food Act 1981 to comply with the Food Standards Code.

NZFSA is looking at ways that compliance can best be demonstrated by importers and is also exploring a range of additional options for ensuring that New Zealand requirements are met in future.

Ends

For further comment contact: Geoff Allen, Director (Compliance and Investigation), 04 894 2518 or 029 894 2518.

For further information contact: Gary Bowering, Manager (Communications), 04 894 2532 or 029 894 2532.

Bt63 rice – Questions and Answers

30 July 2008

What is Bt63 rice?

Bt63 is the name of a type of rice that has had genes inserted into it, making it a type of GM rice. Bt crops have a gene from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt), that produces natural toxins that act as insecticides. The Bt bacterium itself is approved for use on crops, and can be used in organic production. When a gene from Bt is put into a plant cell it gives the plant the ability to produce the same insecticide that the Bt bacterium itself produces. The purpose of doing this is to produce insect-resistant plants that require fewer pesticide sprays to grow and produce crops.

What is the status of Bt63 rice?

While there are many Bt crops around the world that have been approved as foods, this particular type, Bt63, has not had a safety assessment. Bt63 produces a fusion protein Cry1Ab/Cry1Ac which offers resistance to certain pests. The Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac proteins are already in some approved GM crops, but the combined form of these two proteins has not been assessed for safety.

NZFSA, like the UK Food Standards Agency, (http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2008/mar/rice) is not aware of any health implications for consumers who eat rice products containing Bt63. NZFSA considers it unlikely that the fusion protein would cause harm if consumed. However, Bt63 would need to be specifically assessed and approved before New Zealand law would allow it to be sold here as a food.

Has Bt63 been found in New Zealand?

Trace amounts, (approximately 0.1% - or one tenth of one percent) of Bt63 were confirmed in one rice product on 29 July 2008. This is just on the limits of detectability for GM content. The product is a specialist rice vermicelli product imported in limited quantities. The product is Zhongshan Foodstuffs (Zhong Qiao Brand) Kongmoon Rice Stick (454g) with a Production date of 23 04 2007 and Best Before (EXP) date 22 10 2008.

Why did NZFSA test for Bt63 rice?

Following reported incidents in Europe of Bt63 in imported Chinese rice products and an assessment of the quantity of rice products imported into New Zealand, NZFSA tested for the presence of Bt63 to ascertain whether there was a compliance issue in New Zealand.

Last year, NZFSA tested a range of products from China (http://www.nzfsa.govt.nz/publications/media-releases/2007/residue-results-august-2007.htm) and found them to be in compliance with New Zealand standards.

China prohibits the export of GM rice and tests all exports for the presence of GM product in export shipments. NZFSA is therefore working with the relevant Chinese authorities to identify the source of this particular import into New Zealand and to track down how GM rice came to be detected in this shipment.

What is happening to the imported rice vermicelli product?

NZFSA has assessed the product and is not aware of any health implications for consumers who eat rice products containing Bt63. This aligns with advice from UKFSA and, given the very low trace amounts present in this product, NZFSA considers its consumption unlikely to be a risk.

However, because Bt63 has not been approved for use in New Zealand the product containing it should not be on sale. At NZFSA’s instigation, the importer has agreed to withdraw the approximately 4000kg of affected rice vermicelli from sale. This represents less than 0.5 percent of the total rice products imported into New Zealand.

People who have purchased this product can choose to consume or discard it.

What are New Zealand’s requirements for genetically modified food?

Standard 1.5.2 – Food produced using gene technology – of the Food Standards Code sets out the regulations for GM foods. It contains a list of the approved foods and labelling requirements. GM food can only be sold in New Zealand if Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has assessed them and determined they are safe for people to eat.

There is an allowance for unintentional presence of approved GM content up to one percent before a GM ingredient must be labelled. This recognises that, even with the best of intentions, occasionally some cross-contamination of different foods is possible. For example, intermixing may arise from use of the same transport containers or vehicles for GM and non-GM foods or ingredients. More information about the regulation and labelling of GM foods is available at http://www.foodsmart.govt.nz/whats-in-our-food/genetically-modifed-food/overview/.

What is being done to ensure future compliance?

Under New Zealand law, all those importing, producing or selling food are responsible for meeting food standards. NZFSA has already reminded importers of this legal requirement of diligence; has alerted its counterparts overseas and is further investigating this particular instance.

NZFSA also intends to introduce a range of measures similar to those introduced in Europe including:

Continue to work with overseas authorities to ensure product complies before it reaches New Zealand;

Enhanced verification programme at the border which targets how the importers are meeting their responsibilities;

Periodic audit of the verification programme to ensure that it continues to perform;

Ensuring new legislation gives greater powers to act in such situations.

What is happening to the other products that had trace indicators?

NZFSA is working to clarify the source of the other trace indicators and is consulting with experts in the field. One possible explanation is that the rice products tested also contained approved GM events for soy and corn ingredients.