Europe balks at GE corn in NZ

Last updated 05:00 02/11/2009

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A genetically engineered (GE) corn authorised as safe for New Zealanders to eat has been withdrawn from commercial development in Europe because of safety concerns there.

Monsanto's high-lysine LY038 corn – intended as feed for animals – was approved as safe for human consumption in New Zealand in December 2007 after a six-month government delay.

That was despite concerns from Canterbury University's Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI) that it might cause cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer's disease if it accidentally entered the human food chain.

The application to have the high-lysine corn approved for use in Europe has now been withdrawn after the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) asked for further evidence of its safety.

In a letter to the EFSA, Monsanto subsidiary Renessen Europe says "conducting further studies ... can no longer be justified, in view of the additional costs involved and the reduced commercial interest in this product".

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) maintains there is no safety issue with the corn and that it was withdrawn from Europe purely for commercial reasons.

Monsanto spokesman Jonathan Ramsay said "changes in the overall corn market" were among factors resulting "in a shift of the overall value to customers of this product at this time".

Leading Christchurch gene scientist Professor Jack Heinemann believes it was a tactical, rather than purely commercial, withdrawal and wants to know why FSANZ still considers it would be safe for Kiwis to eat.

Heinemann, the director of INBI, said when the corn was cooked, the high level of lysine could combine with sugars to form chemicals strongly implicated in a number of diseases.

"Personally, I don't believe the withdrawal of LY038 was for economic reasons," he said.

"Monsanto estimated the street value of LY038 was going to be US$1 billion a year.

"Do we really believe that a market of US$1b a year is too small for Monsanto? I don't.

"The European Food Safety Authority requested more safety data from Monsanto.

"From comments released to me, it appears that Finland, for example, was not satisfied with either the number or the quality of animal-feeding studies."

Heinemann said Malta voted to reject the corn on the basis of the INBI submission – "the same science that FSANZ attempted to bury down here".

Heinemann, who is also a biosafety specialist on the United Nations' ad hoc technical experts group, believed the GE corn would be withdrawn globally because of the high likelihood it would become mixed with other corn and end up in the human food chain in Europe.

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"I believe the European member states were dissatified with the same level of scientific assurance that FSANZ was completely satisfied with," he said.

"To me, that means the European regulators are far more concerned about the health of their people than the Australian-New Zealand regulator."

FSANZ spokeswoman Lydia Buchtmann said Monsanto's decision on the corn was made for commercial reasons.

"It has been approved as safe by food regulators around the world, including FSANZ," she said.

Asked if that meant European standards were higher than ours, she said: "Our standards have been independently assessed recently and are said to be some of the best in the world."

- The Press

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