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December 7 a dim day for GE labelling

FEATURE ARTICLE: December 7 a dim day for GE labelling

Green MP Sue Kedgley says the introduction of a GE labelling system on December 7 will bring more confusion not clarity for consumers. Has the Naked Chef bought into a Kiwi battle with his promotion of Pam’s - a supermarket brand which is not GE Free?


Dicing, chopping, talking faster than any other chef around - the Naked Chef can now be seen on TV ads here promoting the brand name Pam’s. Employing one of the most high profile chefs in the world to give his seal of approval to a brand was a public relations coup for Pam’s.

But as one of the few supermarket brands which says it is happy to keep using genetically engineered ingredients in New Zealand food, it’s possible that the Naked Chef may have bought himself a battle with Kiwi consumers.

Foodstuffs, the supermarket chain which supply Pak ‘n’ Save, New World and Four Square with their Pam’s brand, have acknowledged that their brand contains some genetically engineered ingredients.

Foodstuff’s retail operations general manager, Graham Fabian told The Herald newspaper on November 21 that anecdotal evidence showed consumers were relaxed about genetically engineered food and would not refuse to eat it.

“We are not going to go out of our way to source products which are [GE]-Free,” he said.

Consequently, when the long awaited new labelling regime is introduced on December 7, Foodstuffs will keep food containing genetically engineered ingredients on its shelves, including the Pam’s range.

The real tragedy is that this new regime will not require Foodstuffs to label the majority of those products, There are so many loopholes in the labelling regime that only a handful of genetically engineered foods like soy flour and soy protein and single protein foods like tofu, and soymilk, will need to carry a definitive label.

Other ingredients like highly refined soy, cottonseed, canola oils and fats, sugars such as fructose, sucrose found in a vast array of foods, and corn or maize starches from genetically engineered plants won’t have to be labelled as containing genetically engineered ingredients.

Nor will processing aids such as the genetically engineered rennet that is used in making some vegetarian cheeses, the flour improving enzyme amylase which is used in many breads and baked goods. Nor will genetically engineered flavourings and colourings that are used in a wide variety of processed foods, or additives such as soy lecithin which is founds in thousands of baked goods, confectionary and bread. Meat from animals fed on genetically engineered feed will also not need to be labelled.

Nothing bought from a deli, bakery, take-away or restaurant has to be labelled (and that’s about 60 per cent of the food we eat).

To complicate and delay things further, any genetically engineered food packaged before December 7 will be able to stay on the shelves without a label for another whole year. And food which has up to one per cent of unintended GE contamination won’t have to be labelled either, so unless this is stringently monitored this could amount of yet another loophole for manufacturers and retailers.

The new labelling regime is, in short, a Clayton’s labelling system that won’t give consumers the information they need to choose whether they want to eat genetically engineered food or not.

But what the regime has done is provide the impetus for many companies to go further than the labelling regime requires and voluntarily source all non-GE ingredients.

Companies that have gone further than the labelling regime requires, and are working towards taking all genetically engineered foods and ingredients out of their products or their own brands include Sanitarium, TipTop, Heinz-Watties, Tegel, Cadbury’s, Cerebros, Greggs, Kellogs, Hubbards, Whittakers, NZ Dairy Foods, Unilever, Ryvita, Leggos and Chelsea.

Two of the country’s major supermarket chains, Woolworths (Woolworths, Price Chopper and Big Fresh) and Progressive (Countdown and Foodtown) have also committed to making their own brands GE-Free.

There will still be other brands in their supermarkets with genetically engineered ingredients (many of which will remain unlabelled), but at least consumers can buy one of their ‘own brand’ products, and know it will be genuinely GE-Free.

Campaigners always hoped this labelling regime would spur companies to respond to consumer demand and remove all genetically engineered ingredients from their products, as happened in the UK, when a similar labelling regime was introduced.

All major British supermarkets went further than the labelling regime required and guaranteed that all brands on their shelves would be GE-free. If New Zealand consumers support brands which have made the effort to go completely GE-free, and boycott companies that haven’t, we will continue to turn the tables here.

While hunting around for brands which are genuinely GE-free, consumers should remember that all organic food is, and always has been, GE-free. Some bakeries, such as Pandoro’s, and cafes such as the Real Earth Organic Café in Wellington, have already declared themselves GE-free, and more are likely to do so as consumer pressure grows.

By law, although bakeries, restaurants, delis and take-aways do not need to label GE food, they have to be ready to answer questions from consumers about whether they use genetically engineered ingredients or not.

In short, the new labelling system is messy, complicated and confusing – a far cry from the Labour Government’s pre-election promise, to label all foods derived from genetically modified organisms.

In the absence of a simple, clear label that tells us whether the food we are buying contains any genetically engineered ingredients or not, consumers will have to educate themselves, work out which brands have committed to sourcing GE-free food, and which brands haven’t, and buy accordingly.

But consumers can take heart from the number of companies which have already decided that going GE-free is the way to keep customer loyalty. If consumers continue to support GE-free brands and products, eventually all supermarkets and manufacturers will recognise that they have no option but to also go GE-free.

ENDS

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