The West Australian government is calling for an immediate halt on approval of GM foods and Tasmania’s all-party joint select committee has issued a report saying bans on GM food crops should continue, as dispute about safety erupts between regulators and independent scientists.

Now in full election mode, West Australian Premier Alan Carpenter recently said Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) should stop approval of GM foods “until independent scientific trials determine their safety.”

“I find it unbelievable and unacceptable that the national food regulator relies principally on the say-so of the GM companies when assessing GM foods as safe to eat,” Mr Carpenter said.

Crikey has confirmed that FSANZ regulations rely on GM company-provided data, and do not require the type of independent testing that detected novel protein byproducts and health hazards in some GM foods. But FSANZ spokesperson Lydia Buchtmann told Crikey that FSANZ has “a rigorous process for approving GM foods to ensure they are as safe as the conventional variety”, including requiring tests for allergens.

“To date FSANZ has not found justification for rejecting a GM food on safety grounds. Regulators in Europe, Canada and Japan all use similar data to FSANZ for assessing and approving GM foods,” she said.

Just last month, Austria banned the import of a GM corn variety approved by FSANZ following review of “several independent scientific studies,” according to Austria’s Consumer Protection Minister Barbara Prammer. One of these found evidence of organ toxicity in rats fed the GM corn. The peer-reviewed study, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, is rejected by FSANZ, which says the study “did not identify any public health and safety concerns associated with the genetic modification used to produce” the insect-resistant corn.

But geneticist and former US National Institute of Health scientist Professor Jack Heinemann said FSANZ “did not use the internationally accepted protocol for carrying out a rigorous scientific analysis”. Among other scientists who dispute FSANZ’s claims is nutritional biochemist and epidemiologist Dr Judy Carman, who is commissioned by the West Australian government to undertake independent studies into the safety of GM foods.

Dr Carman told Crikey: “The GM pea provides a clear example of the failings of our current GM food regulatory regime. The pea failed miserably on all the [independent health] tests conducted. These tests are not required by our food regulator. There is clear and robust scientific evidence that the allergy assessment conducted by our food regulator is completely inadequate. They continue to ignore this evidence.”

Independent or animal feeding studies are not considered necessary by FSANZ “where GM varieties have been shown to be compositionally equivalent to conventional varieties.”

But “a proper compositional analysis would compare most of the substances, including proteins, between the GM crop and a comparable non-GM crop,” said Carman.

“FSANZ does not do this. Instead, it usually just compares the concentrations of the amino acids in the GM crop and a similar non-GM crop. This is like comparing the fire safety of two buildings — not by comparing fire evacuation plants, stairwells, and extinguishers, but by bulldozing the buildings and counting the bricks.”

Still, many scientists support FSANZ, including Adelaide University crop scientist Dr Christopher Preston, Melbourne University microbiologist Dr David Tribe, Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Jim Peacock and Victoria’s Chief Scientist, Sir Gustav Nossal. CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy Dr TJ Higgins told Crikey: “CSIRO Plant Industry supports FSANZ’s comprehensive evaluation of GM foods.”

FSANZ points out that many of the studies that have linked novel proteins and their byproducts in GM foods to allergic reactions, organ damage and precancerous growths in animals are not peer-reviewed — and FSANZ disputes the findings of those that are.

But with “no government or industry funding for independent testing” health researchers find it “difficult or impossible” to do follow-up studies — especially without legal access to GM seeds, says Institute for Health and Environment Research director Dr Kate Clinch-Jones.

Nutritional bioechemist Dr Rosemary Stanton AO agrees: “It has been difficult (and often impossible) for independent researchers to obtain GM seeds for testing.”

Dr Stanton said GM food safety assessment “should include testing by independent researchers rather than leaving the testing to the companies that own the seeds. Why not have independent researchers carry out tests if the companies are so sure the products are harmless?”

But FSANZ maintains an opposing view. “It is the responsibility of companies that have developed GM foods to demonstrate the safety of that food.” Buchtmann said by the time companies submit GM foods for approval, “they have been tested comprehensively.”