New Zealand's food standards watchdog is reviewing how rules might apply to a new generation of products that can be altered genetically, but without any introduced DNA.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) today released a consultation paper around how laws should apply to food derived from new breeding techniques, or NBTs.
NBTs are a wide set of new technologies being developed and applied in plant and animal breeding, with similar approaches being explored in medicine.
But there were questions over whether such foods were "food produced using gene technology" and thus could not be sold or used as an ingredient under FSANZ's current code, unless listed in a special schedule.
That uncertainty was because some of these new techniques could be used to make certain changes to the genome, or genetic make-up, of an organism without permanently introducing any new DNA.
The organism from which the food for sale was obtained could therefore contain genome changes, yet not any new DNA, meaning NBT foods could appear similar to those made using conventional methods.
Foods derived using conventional breeding were generally considered to have a long history of safe use, and were not typically subject to pre-market safety assessment before entering the food supply.
While the code made a clear distinction between conventional breeding techniques and techniques involving gene technology, there had been debate over the nature of risks associated with foods using NBT and whether they needed to be assessed and approved before hitting the market.
FSANZ had been investigating NBTs since they were discussed at a series of workshops six years ago, and had since established an expert advisory group to assist a review.
Options ranged from treating them like conventional breeding techniques - given a green light once a technique has been proved safe - or treated like current genetically modified organisms with each application requiring a rigorous safety assessment.
The agency's chief executive, Mark Booth, said a range of new plant and animal breeding techniques have been developed since FSANZ's standard around foods using gene technology was introduced nearly 20 years ago.
"We have been monitoring these techniques and working with experts to understand how foods produced using them should be regulated by food laws."
But, at this stage, FSANZ wasn't proposing any changes to the code, nor was it considering any labelling issues.
"If, after considering all feedback, we decide to raise a proposal to change the code, there would be further consultation with the community."
Otago University geneticist Professor Peter Dearden said the past few years had seen many new technologies introduced, some based on CRISPR/cas9 gene editing, which can knock out genes or proteins.
Many challenged the only way we had thought about transgenic or "GM" organisms, because they could change the DNA of an organism, rather than inserting a new piece of DNA.
"This technology mirrors somewhat mutagenesis, a technology that produced all of the plants of the 'green revolution', for example," Dearden said.
Mutagenesis involved making lots of mutation in an organism's DNA and then selecting those with a useful outcome.
"Gene editing is less scattergun, but a reasonably precise way to make the mutation that you want."
This fell between the old technologies of mutagenesis, and the newer ones of transgenesis.
"These technologies do use a lab manipulation to change the DNA, but they don't involve the insertion of a piece of DNA from another organism," he said.
"FSANZ are investigating what people think about the outcomes of these new technologies, and a few more specific ones that have similar effects.
"This is incredibly timely, as products made with gene editing are already being developed overseas, and detecting gene edited organism is much harder than detecting a transgenic one."
Dearden said the new technologies had "enormous potential" but getting their regulation wrong could, on one hand stifle innovation, and on the other cause disquiet about risk.
"I applaud FSANZ for asking questions about these technologies, and am impressed by the thoughtful, knowledgeable and effective ways they have presented the information."
People had until April 12 to make submissions.