Reporter 414, 9 February 1998

Food for thought for committee members

Leeds microbiologist John Heritage has joined a government committee responsible for approving - or rejecting - developments in food production in Europe. Genetically modified Maize that is resistant to herbicides and potatoes with inbuilt insect resistance are just two of the innovations which have been reviewed by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes recently.

The committee was set up ten years ago to look at issues such as irradiation of food, but now the remit of the committee has expanded to include examination of foods produced by novel processes such as genetic manipulation. Its members' workload is thus increasing. "The committee used to meet four times a year but because of the increase in workload it will meet six times this year," says Dr Heritage. "I imagine the number of cases we review will increase with time. The recent White Paper 'The Food Standards Agency: A Force For Change' places great emphasis on the work of my committee."

The members are sent scientific material to review - if novel foods are to be approved they must be seen to be equivalent to the unmodified version. The committee is not without teeth: the last time the committee met almost every submission was deferred for further evidence to be submitted for consideration. Dr Heritage was invited to join because of his expertise in the field of genetic engineering - he is currently working with clinical microbiologists to explore the spread of antibiotic resistance genes in clinically important bacteria.

He is also about to collaborate on a major project with Prof. Mike Forbes from Biology to study the potential for antibiotic resistance genes to transfer from genetically modified food into gut bacteria after the food has been eaten. He will serve on the committee for three years initially, and so far he is enjoying it immensely. He says "it's a very interesting job and I feel that it is an honour, both personally and for the University, that I have been asked to serve on this committee."

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