These evaluations do not specifically focus on safety assessment, but many potential products with unusual characteristics are eliminated during this stage. This elimination process enhances the likelihood that a safe product will be generated.
Finally, in the precommercialization stage for both GE plants and animals, the GE product should go through a detailed and specific safety assessment process. This process should focus on the safety of the products associated with the introduced gene and any other likely toxicological or antinutritional factors associated with the source of the novel gene and the product to which it was introduced. The safety of the GE product for both human and animal feeding purposes must be considered.
Given the relative novelty of genetic engineering, few examples are available that involve safety assessments for GE food, especially those with substantially altered composition that are the focus of this report. The use of substantial equivalence is one approach used to illustrate distinctions that may exist between foods modified by genetic engineering compared with traditional (non-GE) methods for modifying food composition.
The concept of substantial equivalence provides a basis to plan a safety assessment designed to determine if GE foods are as safe as their traditional counterparts (FAO/WHO, 1996; IFT, 2000; OECD, 1993). It was developed in part because traditional toxicological approaches for evaluating the safety of food additives, pesticide residues, and contaminants do not work well in evaluating the safety of whole food, including GE food, because of the difficulties encountered in exaggerating the dosages of whole food in the diets of experimental animals.
The concept of substantial equivalence is frequently misinterpreted because of the mistaken perception that the determination of substantial equivalence is the end point of a safety assessment, rather than the starting point. From a safety assessment perspective, the concept of substantial equivalence merely provides a framework for focusing any safety studies on the areas of greatest potential concern. Current GE varieties of traditional crops, such as corn and soybeans, are altered very little from their traditional counterparts. Thus the safety evaluation focuses on how GE crops differ from their traditional counterparts and further assumes that the unchanged components are just as safe as the traditional counterparts (see Chapter 4). With the concept of substantial equivalence, the GE food, or food component, is compared with its traditional counterpart for such attributes as origins of genes, phenotypic characteristics, composition—including key nutrients, antinutrients, and allergens—and consumption patterns. More recently, the phrase “substantial equivalence” has evolved into “comparative safety assessment” to encompass a broader meaning that includes an analytical