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Genetically modified medicines and food

What genetically modified medicines are sold in New Zealand

Some medicines used in New Zealand are manufactured by a process that uses a genetically modified organism. In the majority of these cases, a bacterium or yeast will be modified to enable it to produce a naturally occurring human protein. The resulting medicine (ie, the protein) will not typically contain any DNA (modified or otherwise), and the protein will be chemically very similar or identical to that normally produced in humans. In other words, while the protein is produced through a process involving genetic modification, the protein itself is not genetically modified. Up to 30 of these types of medicines, such as insulin and human growth hormones, have been approved for use in New Zealand.

Some medicines, such as vaccines, may contain live genetically modified organisms but none have yet been approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) for use in New Zealand.

What controls are there on medicines?

Medicines must be approved by the Minister of Health under the Medicines Act 1981. Only then can they be distributed or sold as medicines.

Medsafe is part of the Ministry of Health and is responsible for assessing the quality and safety of all medicines before they can be used in New Zealand. This is done according to internationally agreed guidelines and standards.

If a medicine contains a live organism that has been genetically modified, both the Minister of Health and ERMA (under the HSNO Act) must approve its use.

This means that if someone wants to introduce a medicine that contains a live genetically modified organism - such as certain vaccines - they must apply to both ERMA and Medsafe to have the medicine assessed. ERMA would assess the environmental risks and Medsafe would examine its effectiveness and safety for people. If the medicine meets the criteria for 'low risk' (that is, it will not cause serious harm to humans or the environment), ERMA has the ability to delegate the decision making to Medsafe.

What genetically modified foods are sold in New Zealand?

No genetically modified crops are grown commercially in New Zealand. No fresh fruit, vegetables or meat sold in New Zealand is genetically modified. However, some processed foods may contain approved genetically modified ingredients that have been imported. For example, many soy-based products are derived from genetically modified soya beans.

Processed food

The main genetically modified crops grown overseas are soybeans, canola, corn and cotton. Some of the food ingredients that could be produced from these crops are soybean paste, canola oil and cottonseed oil. Foods derived from these genetically modified crops can be sold here only if they have been assessed for safety by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and approved by the Australia New Zealand Foods Standards Council (ANZFSC), a council of Australian and New Zealand Health Ministers. You can check the label for genetically modified ingredients in canned, packaged or processed foods.

What is labelled?

There are labelling standards for genetically modified food in New Zealand. Genetically modified food must be labelled so consumers can choose whether or not to buy it.

Any food, food ingredient, food additive, food-processing aid or flavouring that contains genetically modified DNA or protein must have this fact noted on the label. If a food or ingredient has altered characteristics, this must also be on the label. For example, if an oil was made from a plant that had been genetically modified so that its oil boils at a higher temperature, the oil would have to be labelled, even though no genetically modified material would be present. A genetically modified ingredient does not have to be listed on the label when:

  • it is a flavouring in the food and makes up less than 0.1 percent of that food
  • an ingredient unintentionally contains genetically modified material at levels of less than 1 percent of that ingredient.

Food ingredients can be processed to remove all DNA or protein, including those that have been changed by genetic modification. An example is canola oil from a genetically modified canola plant. The oil from this genetically modified canola plant can be the same as oil that comes from a canola plant that has not been modified. When food has been processed to remove all genetically modified DNA or protein, and does not have altered characteristics, the food does not need to be labelled as GM. Meat and other products from animals that have been fed GM food are not labelled as genetically modified.

Did you know?

No fresh vegetables, fruit or meat sold in New Zealand is genetically modified.

 

These labelling rules apply only to foods and ingredients approved for food use in New Zealand. Genetically modified material not approved for food use is not allowed at any level in food.

None of the fresh meat, fruit and vegetables currently sold in New Zealand have been genetically modified. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) would have to assess any such foods for safety before they could be available for consumption here. They would also have to be labelled as being genetically modified.

Safety assessment

No genetically modified food or food ingredient will be allowed on to the New Zealand market unless it has gone through the FSANZ safety assessment process. Information about this process can be found on FSANZ's website.

If a genetically modified food is considered safe, FSANZ advises the Australia New Zealand Foods Standards Council which must give formal approval before it can be sold or used as a food. Our Minister of Health is on the Australia New Zealand Foods Standards Council. If a food that is also a living organism (eg, a genetically modified tomato) were ever released in New Zealand, it would need approval from ERMA as well.

Food in restaurants and takeaways

Food prepared and sold from food premises and vending vehicles (e.g. restaurants, takeaway food outlets, and caterers) is exempt from GM food labeling requirements. In these cases, the food business must supply consumers with information about the product which is not misleading or untruthful.

Foods containing genetically modified DNA or protein, or that have altered characteristics, must be labelled 'genetically modified'.