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Moves to bypass NZ Royal Commission on GM


Australian government moves to bypass New Zealand Royal Commission findings by outlawing GM labelling through WTO

The Australian government has moved to unilaterally bypass consumer preferences for clear labelling of genetically modified food in New Zealand by calling, along with South Africa, for severe curbs on GM-Free and non-GM labels at the current meeting of the World Trade Organisation's CODEX Committee on 1st-4th May. If passed, these proposals will effectively prevent manufacturers from informing the public that specific products are free from GM ingredients and also prejudice the future recommendations of the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification which is due to report in June. The full text of the Australian proposal follows this press release.

The Natural Food Commission believes that by introducing this motion at the WTO the Australian government is helping to implement a three-fold international strategy being used by the biotech industry to break consumer opposition to GM foods. Their aim is to abolish unambiguous or informative GM food labeling. This strategy involves:

1. Maximising the global spread of GM pollution through the deliberate contamination of the seed supplies which they control, the non-segregation of raw materials for the food industry and the placement of uncontained 'field trials' of GM crops on regions wishing to be GM-Free. (Note: Whilst the GM contamination of food is still principally a US problem, the contamination of seeds from the US and Canada, together with the 'trialling' of GM crops in hundreds of locations in many countries including New Zealand and Australia threatens to globalise the problem.)

2. Undermining public support for negative GM labeling by finding and giving high-level publicity to any food products labelled as 'non-GM' or 'GM-Free' that they have succeeded in contaminating - and then calling for national and international bans on such labels. This would effectively prevent food manufacturers from informing the public that they are exercising due diligence in avoiding contamination.

3. Undermining statutory GM labelling by ensuring that there is so much contamination that everything has to be labelled as GM, by demanding that contamination thresholds are increased every time the background contamination level increases, or by outlawing statutory GM labeling globally via the controlling CODEX committee of the WTO.

New Zealand consumers believe they have a right to decide what foods they eat. In order to do so, there must be a simple, clear way to distinguish whether GM ingredients are contained in foods. New Zealanders fought hard and made many thousands of submissions to ANZFA in order to win the GM labelling regulations which will be introduced this December. However there are so many exceptions to these regulations that only along with 'negative' or 'GE-Free' labelling will consumers be able to avoid foods which have GM ingredients. Items 11b to 11f in the Australian proposal (see following text) would give international legal force and almost unlimited license to the efforts of biotech companies to prevent companies from informing the public that their products are GM-free As a result the ANZFA labelling will be rendered useless since consumers will not be able find out which producers are taking rigorous steps to avoid the use of GM ingredients or their accidental presence in food items. The Natural Food Commission calls upon media, NGOs and consumers organisations in New Zealand to urgently oppose the Australian proposal which will destroy consumer's right of choice and undermine our sovereignty.


Background 1. Labelling claims made regarding the absence of food or food ingredients produced using certain techniques of genetic modification/genetic engineering, so called 'negative claims', are increasingly being applied on a voluntary basis by food businesses in many countries to address a perceived consumer demand or market niche for such foods. The number of food products carrying such negative labelling claims often far exceeds the occurrence of positive labels even in countries where positive labelling is mandatory.

2. Such negative labelling claims may be regulated under general provisions within food law regarding false or misleading conduct, and/or through general provisions within consumer protection or fair trading/trade practices legislation that regulate false, misleading or deceptive conduct.

3. Negative labelling claims on food produced using gene technology however bring with them issues not specifically recognised in such legislation. For example;

* negative claims made regarding the absence of novel GM components (recombinant DNA or novel protein) within a food may lead consumers to conclude gene technology was not used at any step of production,

* negative claims made on food or ingredients that do not have a genetically modified/engineered counterpart while truthful may be deceptive, and * negative claims may erroneously be applied to foods or ingredients which contain GM components but fall below a permitted ingredient threshold for positive labelling.

Regulation and Guidance on Negative Claims 4. Some countries (e.g. Netherlands, Austria and Germany) have recognised these anomalies difficulties by developing regulations specific to negative claims for foods produced using gene technology.

5. Australia provides specific advice on the use and limitation of negative claims in the Compliance Guide for Labelling of Food Produced using Gene Technology developed to support positive labelling requirements coming into effect in December 2001.

6. The scope and general principles of the Codex General Guidelines on Claims (clause 1.2) emphasises the importance of regulations on the representation of food in stating: "no food should be described or presented in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character in any respect". The Guideline also emphasises (clause 3.5) that: "claims that could give rise to doubt about the safety of similar food or which could arouse or exploit fear in the consumer" should be prohibited.

7. While these general Codex provisions recognise the importance of setting wide-ranging regulations to prohibit misleading claims, they do not adequately address issues specific to negative claims for food produced using gene technology.

8. The Codex Guideline for the Labelling of Food and Food Ingredients Obtained Through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification/Genetic Engineering (CX/FL 01/7; at Step 3 of the Codex Procedure) incorporates no guidance with respect to negative claims.

9. Lack of international harmonisation on the application and use of negative labelling claims for food produced using gene technology has potentially serious implications in the trade of such foods. There is thus an imperative to establish common approaches to regulating such claims.

Proposal for New Work 10. Clear and specific guidance must provided by Codex on the use and applicability of negative labelling claims for food produced using gene technology. Developing guidance on this issue may be approached by either:

* reviewing the Codex General Guideline on Claims to elaborate the applicability and use of negative claims for food produced using gene technology, or * incorporating guidance on the issue in the proposed Codex Guideline for the Labelling of Food and Food Ingredients Obtained Through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification/Genetic Engineering.

11. Specific issues on which guidance should be provided include: a) The availability and accreditation of evidence to substantiate statement or claims regarding the absence of food produced using gene technology; b) Whether the statement or claim is likely to mislead consumers regarding the food or ingredients safety, nutritional value or composition as compared to food or ingredients produced using biotechnology;

c) That where an absolute statement or claim is made, such as "GM free" the claim applies to the production of all components within the food or ingredient (such absolute claims should not allow for accidental presence of a genetically modified component of presence of biotech components as minor or trace ingredients and would be technically difficult to enforce);

d) Where the statement or claim cannot be guaranteed, as is likely for food or ingredients marketed or processed using identity preservation systems, the statement should be qualified to accurately reflect the efforts of the manufacturer including systems of accreditation used;

e) Where a food or ingredients produced using gene technology is specifically exempt from positive labelling, the application of a negative claim is potentially deceptive and could mislead consumers; and

f) Negative labelling statements or claims should be limited to those foods or ingredients for which biotech counterparts exist in the market.

Guy Hatchard
Natural Food Commission
Organised as a public service by the Natural Law Party
639 Kahikatea Flat Road, RD1 Kaukapakapa. Tel: +64 9 420 4660
Director: Guy Hatchard PhD . Email

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