GM labelling may scare consumers and up prices

The labelling of GM foods could increase food prices by as much as 10%, according to Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, CEO of AfricaBio. She recently appeared before parliament’s Portfolio Committee for Trade and Industry, to comment on draft amendments to regulations governing the labelling of GM food.

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According to the amendments, published by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in October, locally produced and imported food containing GM ingredients or components of 5% or more must be labelled: “contains genetically modified ingredients or components”. Obokoh said studies in other countries had indicated that GM labelling could push up food costs by 10%.

Mandatory labelling was an expensive undertaking for farmers, industry and government and GM food labelling would not advance consumer health, but would increase food prices for consumers, she said. Obokoh raised concerns about the practical implementation and feasibility of the labelling regulation, which could incur expensive lawsuits against farmers, grocers and food companies who may find it impractical and confusing to implement.

“To cut costs, we suggest that GM-free products should be labelled ‘non-GM’ to cater for consumers who wish to acquire products that do not contain GM ingredients,” she said. Janusz Luterek of Hahn & Hahn Attorneys, presented to the portfolio committee on behalf of the Consumer Goods Council, AfricaBio and the National Chamber of Milling.

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He said there were problems with the wording used in the draft amendment that made the new regulations ambiguous. 
According to Luterek, many of the amendments were not clear, would defeat the purpose of the regulation and would lead to an increase in the administrative burden on food producers, manufacturers and retailers. Testing of ingredients and goods to determine their GM content was expensive, and in some cases GM content may not be determinable.

“The amendment should be revised to provide consumers with essential information without increasing the burden on the food supply chain and the price of food and other goods,” he said. “Labelling requires testing of all ingredients at a huge cost, which will lead to food price increases.” Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB), issued a statement congratulating the DTI and praising the role played by consumers in demanding their right to know.

According to Mayet, the proposed amendments conveyed the intention of government to regulate the food industry so that products were labelled. But Obokoh said, “the right to know, without basic information about the subject matter, will confuse and scare consumers. “Foods developed through biotechnology should be labelled if there is a change in nutritional composition or if an added component could be toxic or allergenic.

“Labelling standards should be based on the quantifiable chemical characteristics of the end-product and not on the process of production. This ensures labelling that is measurable, objective, science-based, verifiable and enforceable,” said Obokoh.