Friday, September 26, 2008

Mandatory vs Voluntary Labelling of GM products

Next time you buy your groceries, please check for items that contain derivatives from three major GM crops – soy, corn and canola. They come in the form of lecithin, emulsifiers, hydrolysed oil, starch, cooking oil, syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin, fructose, corn meal, flavourings, food additives, and sweeteners among others. Now this is a long list that forms the ingredients of thousands of food lined up on the grocery shelves which include salad dressings, confections, breads, cakes and cookies, ice-creams, and soy sauce to name a few. We have not mentioned the enzymes used in the production of cheeses and vitamins. How about honey that comes from GM plants? You can’t simply regulate and monitor the transboundary movement of bees. Mandatory labelling will require all these products to be labelled, based on a set threshold level. The threshold level for Japan is 5%, whereas in EU is 1%. This means, any products with a GM ingredient exceeding the set threshold level will have to be labelled.

Now, let us take a product that contains five GM ingredients that exceeds the set threshold level. The five ingredients have to be tracked along the supply chain at every point from the farms to mills, elevators, processing and manufacturing of the products, and ports. Not to mention all the different hands the ingredients pass through such as suppliers, traders, etc. To ensure the ingredients do not get missed up with GM products, tests must be conducted at several points. These tests are not cheap, and depending on the threshold level, the test has to be accurate using highly sensitive equipments and methods. This is a very tedious process and requires lots of testing and segregation. Farmers and manufacturers will only comply with this if consumers are willing to bear the cost by paying a premium price for non-GM ingredients. Malaysia being a small market, big producers such as the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina might not see us as a potential market. More so, when these countries are trying hard to meet local demand in the wake of the global food crisis. Many countries are stocking up their food supply and have reduced exports.

As I always mentioned, GM technology has stood the test of time. More than 10 years have passed with no detrimental effect to human and animal safety, and the environment. It is also the most tested product in human history. Most pharmaceutical drugs are from GM technology. Have you ever wondered why these drugs are not scrutinized as much as GM food?

One of the main reasons for proposing mandatory labelling is to provide choices to consumers. Voluntary labelling can certainly address this. We even see that the reason for labelling as gone beyond safety issues. Religious reasons are also cited now. Isn’t the ‘halal’ labelling system sufficient? How would our Muslim friends determine the 'halal'ness of a product if they are informed of the teachnology used? The source of the ingredient is important to ascertain the 'halal' status and the current 'halal' regime adresses this. Then, we hear about Hindus who can’t consume beef products. So, I assume the appropriate agencies will also ensure that all products that contains beef ingredients will be labelled in the future to ease the dilemma faced by the Hindus, regardless it is GM or not, if the intention is genuine.

A strict labelling regime will be at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. It would require training of regulators, enforcement officers, lab technicians and technologists. Have are we going to regulate, enforce and monitor the traders in Malaysia, given most of our traders are SMEs? Will products sold in the night market or ‘pasar malam’ be labelled? Imagine your soybean drinks, ‘toufu fah’, and ‘tempe’ being labelled. It would be double-standard to exempt the ‘pasar malam’ traders because if safety is the valid concern, then all consumers should be protected and given the choice, not just those who go to big hypermarts.

I would be happy if resources, both financial and manpower is used for more worthy purposes such as ensuring restaurants follow strict hygiene guidelines, food manufacturers do not use banned ingredients, schools do not sell junk food, junk food peddlers are not allowed outside school compounds, smokers do not smoke in non-smoking areas, kids do not have access to cigarettes, the public do not use rivers as their garbage bins... my wish list can go on!

2 comments: said...

Scary stuff seems to be in our food, air and water . . .

Mr.Wall said...