Genetic engineering: For safety in seed, food and feed

GMO monitoring & analytics

The scientific evaluation and analytical monitoring of food safety as well as the safeguarding of sustainable, ecologically compatible land management and thus also yield security on Austrian fields are among our central tasks. This also includes the monitoring of seeds, food and feed in connection with genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMO monitoring

To protect consumers, a very extensive testing program for genetically modified products is carried out in Austria. The official control of food is subject to the Food Safety and Consumer Protection Act (LMSVG). Samples for testing for GMOs are part of the sampling and revision plan of the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection (BMSGPK). In the case of seeds, foodstuffs and feedstuffs, we are responsible for the entire planning and implementation of monitoring for GMOs. The tests are carried out in the National Reference Laboratory for GMOs (NRL for GMOs) of our Institute for Food Safety in Vienna.

Monitoring of GMOs in seeds

In addition to the EU approval criteria, there are also national regulations in the seed sector in Austria. The regulations relevant to seeds exclude the cultivation of genetically modified varieties in Austria.

To review the regulations on seed, monitoring is carried out every year for maize, soybean and rapeseed. An essential part of this is the examination of the seeds in the National Reference Laboratory for GMOs, where specific analytical methods are used to check for the possible presence of genetically modified seeds. Contamination of seeds of non-genetically modified varieties with GMOs, which has occurred by chance or in a technically unavoidable way, must not be present in the initial examination in procedures according to the Seed Act 1997 and must not exceed the value of 0.1% for approved and non-approved GMOs in the follow-up inspection (Seed Genetic Engineering Ordinance 2001 as amended). This limit is applied for approved and non-approved GMOs. The results of this monitoring are published annually on the homepage of the Federal Office for Food Safety (BAES).

GMO screening is carried out during seed testing (for more information, see theScreening section). GM lines not covered by screening are additionally analyzed with event-specific methods.

Monitoring of GMOs in feed

Precise labeling guidelines are provided in the European Union for the placing on the market of feed containing GMOs. Feed containing approved GMOs or produced from approved GMOs must be labeled. This does not apply to feed containing a maximum of 0.9% of genetically modified material of a crop species, provided that this presence is adventitious and technically unavoidable (Art. 12 of Regulation (EC) No. 1829/2003).

Genetically modified feed may also be placed on the market in the European Union without authorization if it meets the criteria of Regulation (EC) No. 619/2011. The prerequisite for this is the safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and a maximum GMO content of 0.1%. For all other non-approved GMOs, no threshold exists. Even traces of such GMOs in feed or in products made from them are not tolerated. The reason for this regulation is to protect consumers from placing on the market products that may pose a potential health risk.

For the production of feed within the framework of organic farming, GMOs are generally prohibited; for adventitious or unavoidable admixtures of GMOs, a maximum content of 0.9% is tolerated.

The control of feed in Austria for unauthorized GMOs mainly concerns soy, corn and rapeseed. On the basis of a risk-based control plan, the number of samples for GMO testing is adjusted annually. In addition, controls for genetically modified rice, linseed, potato, sugar beet and cotton are carried out when necessary.

Monitoring of GMOs in food

Precise labeling guidelines are provided for the marketing of foods containing GMOs in the European Union. Foods containing approved GMOs or produced from approved GMOs or containing ingredients produced from approved GMOs must be labeled. This does not apply to foods containing a maximum of 0.9% genetically modified material, provided that this presence is adventitious and technically unavoidable (Art. 12 of Regulation (EC) No. 1829/2003).

No threshold exists for unauthorized GMOs. Even traces of such GMOs in food or in products made from them are only tolerated if a safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is available. The reason for this regulation is to protect consumers from products that pose a potential health risk.

GMOs are generally prohibited for organic food production. For accidental or unavoidable admixtures of GMOs, a maximum content of 0.9% is tolerated.

The controls of the food inspectorate in Austria for unauthorized GMOs mainly concern the labeling of soy and corn. Furthermore, import controls and market controls of rice and papaya are carried out in case of need.

Genetic engineering analytics

Official food and feed monitoring and seed control require detection methods to be able to detect genetic modifications reliably and quickly. Therefore, standardized analytical methods are an important instrument of control in order to achieve internationally comparable results. The methods are tested in national and international networks (including ENGL, the network of GMO laboratories in the EU) and used in official laboratories.

For use in official control, verification of the performance of each method in the performing laboratory is necessary. These criteria (including limit of detection, limit of quantification, standard deviation) are internationally harmonized and are verified by external auditors as part of the accreditation of a laboratory. Accreditation according to EN ISO 17025 is a prerequisite for the performance of official investigations.

A specific set of standards has been developed by the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) for the testing of GMOs in food. These standards form the basis for methods used in GMO analysis.

The method routinely used today for the detection of GMOs is DNA analysis by real-time PCR. This method can be used to detect whether seeds, food or feed contain GMO components and which GMOs they are (qualitative analysis). If necessary, the GMO content in a product can also be determined (quantitative analysis). DNA has established itself as a standard parameter for GMO analysis because it is relatively insensitive to heating and alkaline treatment. It can therefore also be detected - albeit usually only in fragments - in many processed foods.

The cultivation of GMOs is constantly increasing worldwide, and the number of different GM plants or GM varieties is also rising continuously. This also drives up the testing effort and requires sophisticated analytical strategies.

Further information:

Methods for the analysis of GMOs (European Union Reference Laboratory for GM Food and Feed).

European Committee for Standardization (CEN)

International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

Screening

Screening is a systematic test procedure to identify certain properties of the test objects (e.g. plants). Various screening elements are available for GMO screening. These are DNA sequences that are frequently used in genetic engineering and therefore occur in various GM plants. The GM lines in question are then each tested for the different screening elements. If screening elements are detectable in a sample, identification and quantification of the GM elements will be performed as needed.

The following screening elements (DNA sequences) are currently in use at the National Reference Laboratory for GMOs:

  • P-35S (35S promoter from cauliflower mosaic virus).
  • T-NOS (terminator of nopaline synthase fromAgrobacterium tumefaciens)
  • PAT (phosphinotricin N-acetyltransferase fromStreptomyces viridochromogenes)
  • CTP2-EPSPS (transition chloroplast transit peptide to 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase fromArabidopsis thaliana andAgrobacterium)
  • BAR (phosphinotricin-N-acetyltransferase fromStreptomyces hygroscopicus)

Example of a screening procedure shown on five GM lines:

GM line name (event) DNA sequences (screening elements)
PS-35S T-NOS PAT CTP2 EPSPS BAR
Soybean MON-04032-6 (Roundup Ready®) + + - - -
Soy DAS-68416-4 - - + - -
Soy ACS-GM005-3 (Soy A2704) + - + - -
Corn SYN-EV176-9 (Corn Bt 176) + - - - +
Oilseed rape MON-0073-7 (Rape GT 73) - - - + -

+ ... contained (GM line contains screening element) - ... not contained

Screening strategy

Which screening elements are used is determined by the composition of the samples (test matrix). Depending on whether the samples are seed, feed or food, an adaptation of the screening strategy is necessary.

The situation is easiest for seed screening, because no foreign DNA sequences are to be expected. Food and feed are very well suited for screening due to their often very complex composition.

In the production of new GMOs, non-species screening elements are increasingly dispensed with. Here, the frequently used promoter and terminator sequences are missing. In this case, a simple screening with the mentioned elements is not sufficient to detect all GM events. In these cases, screening must be supplemented with GM lineage-specific methods to cover the scope of the investigation.

For samples with a positive screening result (i.e. DNA sequences characteristic of a GM plant were detected), the specific DNA sequences present are identified in a further analysis step.

The short-term future of GMO analysis will consist of a combination of different methods and strategies to keep the effort at a reasonable level. One possibility is the use of duplex, triplex and multiplex methods. Here, several PCR reactions can run simultaneously in one and the same reaction vessel.

Identification

Identification means the unequivocal detection of a specific genetically modified GM line. This detection is carried out with the aid of a line-specific detection method that provides an unmistakable result. The provision of these specific detection methods is part of the approval procedure for GMOs in the EU. They are made available on the homepage of the European Reference Laboratory for GMOs (EURL). Currently, more than 60 specific detection methods for GMOs are established, including 20 line-specific methods for GM maize alone. The use of duplex, triplex and multiplex methods allows the simultaneous identification of different GM lines in one and the same reaction vessel.

Contact

DI Dr. Alexandra Ribarits

Dr. Markus Wögerbauer

Mag. Rupert Hochegger

Last updated: 20.01.2022

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