Food for thought

 

Genetically modified (GM) foods are no longer the foods of the future. Despite attempts to prevent the testing of genetic crops in the Republic and new restrictions on commercial growing in Britain, GM foods are already on our supermarket shelves - although most shoppers do not realise it.

Undoubtedly, more and more GM produce will be going into shopping trolleys, as production of genetically-altered crops accelerates worldwide. But consumers attempting to identify foods altered by the wonders of gene technology are bamboozled by the current labelling arrangements.

The EU introduced labelling regulations on September 1st. Products containing GM soya and GM maize protein must be labelled, but many derivatives of GM produce, such as soya oil, are exempt.

However, some supermarket groups have decided not to stock any product linked to genetic modification, such is the controversy surrounding them. Others plan to introduce their own, more extensive labelling. Meanwhile, many retailers are scratching their heads as they go through thousands of products to see if they contain GM soya or GM maize, and they have to trace food sources like never before.

British Food Minister Jeff Rooker described the new regulations as "a victory for consumers". But consumer interest groups say they only serve to confuse. For as much as 95 per cent of products containing GM soya and maize ingredients will be excluded, according to anti-GM food groups. This is because oils, lecithins, starch and flavourings generated from GM produce are excluded as the EU's scientific advisers say no genetic material is present in these to any significant extent.

Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) chief executive Dr Patrick Wall believes the labelling regime is not only utterly confusing for consumers but unenforcable. "There is no evidence that GM foods are unsafe, yet there is a lot of consumer anxiety which needs to be addressed." He interprets that anxiety much the way people are against food irradiation: they simply don't want GM foods. Moreover, he says, shoppers cannot make a proper choice.

While the regulations are some improvement on before, FSAI information officer Fiona MacMahon says consumers know little of what's going on. The rules do not define a minimum threshold for testing DNA or protein from GM produce, above which products must be labelled.

"Even when the label says `produced from genetically modified soya', many do not know what this means," she comments. This is reflected in daily phone calls to the FSAI helpline. Their frequency - and widespread belief that GM foods arrived surreptitiously - belie suggestions that consumers are not concerned about this issue.

Quentin Gargan of Genetic Concern alleges that numerous products which may contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not being labelled. Where there is no separation of traditional soya and genetically modified soya, industry finds itself "almost in an impossible position", he claims. In his health-food business, Wholefoods Wholesale, he has traced suppliers to ensure oils, lecithins (used to emulsify and stabilise foods), soya flour etc are guaranteed GMO-free.

"Segregation is possible. It may require a small premium on price but people are prepared to pay," he says. Some food companies have quietly sourced GMO-free ingredients from segregated supplies as "they don't want to inflame the debate - they don't want to have to label". Some have decided to label foods as being "GMO-free" where they can certify this.

He says that the food industry had hoped consumers "would not be as fussed" as they are. There was little consumer suspicion when GM foods were introduced in the US but awareness of the controversy surfaced here before the products came onto shelves, which may explain the difference. He believes a fundamental problem for retailers is that current GM foods have no benefit as such for consumers - they are products with traits such as resistance to herbicides, "grown in response to commercial demands, not consumer demands". Under current arrangements, 14 per cent of foods on supermarket shelves ought to be labelled, he claims. The reality is that considerably less than 1 per cent are. Such a low figure is hard to reconcile as there is also an obligation to label if produce is not segregated, and therefore might contain GMOs. This type of labelling, he claims, misleads consumers.

Consumers have been left in a dreadful position, says Consumer Association of Ireland senior researcher, Jean Cahill. While scientists may say there is no question of such foods being unsafe, consumers want to know what they are eating, and there is the ethical aspect. They need to get basic information including what GM food is. "It's up to retailers to provide this."

Since it is an emotive issue and involves new technology, customers should get as much information as possible. But they are not getting it. It should be possible for manufacturers and retailers to trace produce. It is not necessary to test for GM protein (which is denatured anyway on processing), if traceability systems are good enough, she adds. Together with separation at point of harvest, it would then be possible to indicate clearly what is made with gene technology or contains GMOs.

A trawl by The Irish Times through Dublin supermarkets yielded eight products labelled as containing GM material (see panel). No leaflets were available to inform shoppers. Some, nonetheless, have produced leaflets and all major supermarket groups have endorsed the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation's approach to labelling.

IBEC's Food and Drink Federation spokeswoman, Kathryn Raleigh, accepts that it is confusing at present for consumers. There is a long lead-in for changing labels, notably of frozen and dried foods, while the push for new labels across Europe is putting considerable strain on packaging companies.

The issue goes beyond the label, she says. It requires the provision of accurate information. There is a need for balance: for the views of IBEC, the producers of the technology, and those who have a problem with it, to be readily available to the public. They should "not be bombarded with what could be conceived as misleading information" as has happened with some of Genetic Concern's pronouncements, she argues.

If the information process goes beyond the label, she says, and reaches all sections of the public, confusion will be replaced by clarity, underpinned by assurances that GM soya and maize are the "most tested" food products ever. "The food industry wouldn't use them, if there was a problem. That has to conveyed to the consumer." Superquinn marketing director, Eamonn Quinn, explains the regulations apply to products made after September 1st, while EU regulators have not decided exactly their scope, which may explain why so few GM items are identified. Superquinn has labelled some breaded products; one or two manufacturers have labelled their lines, while others changed ingredients to avoid labelling.

Customers are confused but Superquinn remains committed to "better labelling and better basic information". It took a lead by publishing its own leaflet, labelling some products in advance of legislation and improving traceability. If necessary, it assumes a product is genetically-engineered "until you can tell us otherwise". This has encouraged some suppliers to find non-GM sources, so customers are being given a proper choice - much in the way they can choose to buy organic produce or not.

Tesco decided to label oil which may originate from GM soya, although tests have shown no GM material remains after processing. It decided to label all own-label products containing such soya oil and soya-derived lecithin. It accepted that as well as those who wished to avoid GM material because of their health concerns, there was a further group which wished to avoid the technology altogether on ethical grounds. It is pressing for full segregation. Out of 25,000 lines, less than 20 may be affected, says Tesco Ireland spokeswoman, Sarah Morris. It is not a big issue for its customers, she insists. However, "as a food retailer we have taken the unprecedented step of going beyond what was required (by the EU) and IBEC guidelines by choosing to be more transparent and more open".

There are two extremes, says Super Valu marketing director, Anne Dunphy: one saying GM foods are the worst thing that ever happened, and the other saying they are entirely safe. "We are caught in the middle." Her company is committed to providing as much information as possible, although outlets may have been reluctant to distribute their leaflet in the face of objections, she adds.

Marks & Spencer says GM foods are "not a major consumer issue" despite a British survey showing 58 per cent of shoppers feel stores should not stock such products. It has about 100 products containing GM soya or maize, mainly "ready meals". They are labelled more extensively than EU regulations require.

Prince Charles, a dedicated organic farmer, has aligned himself with the anti-GM food movement. In a Daily Telegraph article this summer, he was irked by labelling arrangements: "We cannot put our principles into practice until there is effective segregation of GM products, backed by a comprehensive labelling system based on progress through the food chain. Arguments that this is either impossible or irrelevant are simply not credible.

"When consumers can make an informed choice about whether or not to eat products containing GM ingredients, they will be able to send direct and unmistakable messages about their preferences, he added. "I hope that manufacturers, retailers and regulators will be ready to take on the responsibility to ensure that this can happen."

It has yet to happen.