Thursday, August 18, 2011


In a democratically governed country the people have a right to know what they are eating and it is wrong on the part of the government to give leeway to the industry to hide the true nature of food products sold by them. The whole philosophy of labeling is based on this concept. It was almost twenty years since there has been a controversy regarding the need to be transparent on the part of the industry regarding their use of genetically modified foods or ingredients in product formulation. Why some countries like Canada, the US and Australia, to mention a few, resisted the universal view that consumer has a right to know whether the products contain GM ingredients is some what intriguing and the only charitable explanation is that they want their food industry to grow providing large employment and deliver food at lower costs.

It is true that foods developed using genetic engineering has divided the world into two distinct groups, one fiercely against and the other willing to accept them. While antagonists see GM foods as unsafe to consume and injurious to the environment, protagonists are satisfied with the safety data generated on many of the GM foods, finding no reason to shun them. It is variously estimated that 70-80% of processed food products in the US and Canada contain one or more of GM ingredients and most consumers are not aware of such a situation, consuming these products under the impression they are "natural". There are suggestions that the current obesity epidemic in the country is growing parallel to the growth of GM foods and one cannot blame anybody if this association is taken as proof that GM foods are unhealthy.

While the debate about the safety or otherwise of GM foods may not end in the foreseeable future, the issue of declaring the presence of GM ingredients is mired in controversy with the industry fiercely opposing such a move due to their apprehension that such a move may impact on the growth of the sector because of possible consumer backlash. The weak argument that printing the label to contain the information about presence of GM ingredients would be expensive is nothing but hogwash! This is a war between the "right to know" segment of consumers and "right to do business" proponents in the industry. One is reminded of a similar instance in the past when irradiation technology was being used by the industry and it was agreed that irradiated foods must carry the information on the label. If irradiation process was found to be absolutely safe where is the need for special labeling? One cannot have dichotomy when it comes to consumer safety. Even to day irradiation technology is in a limbo because of this inconsistency in labeling policies.

It is interesting as to how debates on such an important issue can be vitiated by illogical arguments as put forward by the main stream food industry. According to the GM food lobby, labeling is not necessary because consumers have a choice in Organic Foods if they do not want to eat GM foods! Though many countries wanted clear labeling of GM foods to respect the consumer rights, there has been stiff resistance to this move from the US, Canada and Australia and it is a tribute to the persuasive ability of rest of the world that enabled the Codex Alimentarius Commission which is an association of 100 food safety agencies in different UN members to evolve a consensus agreement on voluntary labeling without any possible conflict with WTO charter. Of course this is unlikely to make the pro-GM food countries introduce the transparent labeling in their countries. At best this only means that they would not challenge if other countries start compulsory labeling of such unnatural foods. What effect this move will have on world trade is not certain now. .


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