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What's wrong with the new GE labelling system

Feature article by Sue Kedgley, Green Party MP 31 July 2000

It sounded like the news consumers have been waiting for years to hear. At long last, a system requiring the mandatory labelling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Certainly it is a first step. As of next July, labels will have to declare the presence of some GE ingredients in food.

Unfortunately, however, included in the fine print of the communique that Australian and New Zealand Health Ministers signed last week are a series of exemptions that mean that the majority of GE ingredients in our food supply still won't have to be labelled.

So instead of a simple, comprehensive labelling system which would enable supermarket shoppers to pick up a loaf of bread and know whether it contains any GE ingredients, or whether it's been subject to genetic modification at any point in the food chain process, the Health Ministers have agreed to a complicated system where only some of the hundreds of GE products in processed foods will need to be declared on a label.

Under the new labelling regime, tofu, soy protein, soy flour and soy milk will have to be labelled.

But the most common GE ingredients in our food supply --soy, cottonseed, canola oils or fats, corn or maize starches, highly refined sugars such as dextrose, fructose, sucrose found in a vast array of foods - won't be declared on a label because there is 'no DNA or protein' left in the final product. Nor will processing aids such as the GE rennet that is used in making vegetarian cheese, or the flour-improving enzyme amylase which is used in many breads and baked goods. Nor will GE flavourings that are used in a wide variety of processed food, or additives such as soy lecithin which is found in thousands of breads, chocolate, confectionery and baked goods.

Take-away foods won't be labelled either. Nor will food sold in delicatessens or in restaurants, nor prepared food sold in the supermarket.

The labelling regime also allows for food which has up to 1% of unintended contamination to be labelled GE-free. Unless this is stringently monitored, this could amount to yet another loophole for manufacturers and retailers.

It's no wonder the Australian and New Zealand Grocery Manufacturer's Associations are crowing about the decision. Largely as a result of their intense lobbying, Health Ministers have retreated from the comprehensive regime they agreed to last October to label 'all foods derived from genetically modified organisms.' So have the Labour and Alliance parties, which promised, in their pre-election manifestoes, to label all foods derived from genetically modified organisms.

Not only that, the Health Ministers have delivered manufacturers a labelling system that sounds comprehensive and credible, and which could easily lull consumers into thinking that all GE foods are labelled. But the new system will not require manufacturers to declare most of the GE ingredients they use in making processed food.

The excuse the Health Ministers used to justify their retreat from what they promised seven months ago is the veiled threat that we would risk having trade sanctions taken against us, or being taken to the World Trade Organisation, if we set up a more stringent labelling regime than our trading partners.

This is nonsense of course. There are a vast array of differences in our labelling regime and those of our trading partners. America has stringent nutrition labelling requirements, for example, which we don't have. Europe requires manufacturers to declare when 'mechanically recovered meat' (meat that has been ripped off bones by high powered machines) is used in food, while we have no such labelling requirement. There are numerous other examples. Nobody has ever suggested that these different labelling requirements constitute a barrier to trade or could provoke trade sanctions. Nobody would be so silly.

But while the new regime is delighting manufacturers and retailers, it will be incredibly confusing for consumers. When they buy a loaf of bread, an ingredient like GE soy flour will be labelled. But other GE ingredients in the bread such as vegetable oil and lecithin won't be declared on a label.

It is absurd that a product that is made from GE soy beans, such as soy oil, won't have to be labelled because the processing methods that are used to extract the oil are so severe that no protein (or nutrients) are left in the final product.

The Ministers said they were introducing labelling so that consumers can know what is in the food they eat. But consumers have made it abundantly clear in submissions and surveys that they want to know whether there are any GE ingredients in food, not just ones that leave detectable levels of DNA/ protein.

Some consumers want to avoid GE food for ethical or religious or environmental reasons, and they want to know whether food has been subjected to genetic modification at any point in the food chain process, even if the end product doesn't have detectable levels of DNA.

Other consumers want to avoid GE food for health and safety reasons. They are worried that none of the GE commodities in our food supply have undergone proper pre-market safety testing that is required of other food additives or, ironically, of GE pharmaceuticals. They know that if a company like Monsanto can show that a new GE soybean resembles a traditional, conventional soybean, there is no requirement under the American Federal Drug Administration (which has approved most GE foods) or under ANZFA for any pre-market testing such as toxicity testing, long term testing or human clinical trials.

The new system is based on the European system of labelling, with some minor differences. The European system requires takeaway, restaurant and delicatessen food to be labelled. Our system does not.

European consumers are not happy with their labelling regime. They want one that is based on tracing all GE products at source, not one that is based on a technical definition of whether there are 'detectable levels of DNA' in the final product.

For most European consumers, however, their labelling regime is almost academic. To respond to consumer demand, most major supermarkets chains and even mainstream manufacturers like Cadbury's and Nestle, have gone far beyond the requirements of their labelling regime and voluntarily removed all GE ingredients from their foods.

We can only hope that is what will happen here---New Zealand manufacturers and retailers will finally follow the lead of British supermarkets, listen to their consumers and remove all --and not just some GE ingredients from our food.

Sue Kedgley Green Party Health and Safe Food Spokesperson.

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