Guide to GM labelling

G Magazine

With an increase in genetically modified (GM) foods on our supermarket shelves it's time to get acquainted with the real meaning behind those controversial initials.

genetically modified corn

Credit: iStockphoto

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With the first commercial genetically modified (GM) crops were sown last autumn in New South Wales and Victoria, it's a good idea to be armed with a few facts about GM products in our food chain.

Since 2001 our food safety body, Food Safety Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), has required that GM foods carry the words 'Genetically Modified' in the ingredients list.

This standard, however, contains what many have dubbed loopholes in the wording.

Many products made or derived from GM crops can populate our supermarket shelves or be served in family restaurants without our knowing.

For example, because GM canola seeds are 'highly refined' to become oil, it is considered that the GM canola DNA will have been eliminated by this process and therefore products made from GM canola seeds don't have to carry a GM label.

This means your margarine, vegetable oil, baked goods made with margarine, deep-fried foods, dressings and mayonnaise could all be made with GM-derived products and you could be none the wiser.

Similarly, animal products are not covered by the standard, unless the animal itself is genetically modified. So milk from a cow that is fed GM cotton detritus or one of the glyphosate (a non-selective systemic herbicide) tolerant lucernes can be sold without any mention of GM.

By the same definition, a bull fattened in a feedlot for 60 days on imported GM soy and GM corn could be slaughtered and its meat sold without a word about GM on the pack.

Years of drought in Australia have seen it more cost-effective for some feedlot owners to import feeds from foreign nations, with a percentage of the feed being GM. The same economics and labelling situation applies to the chicken, pig and farmed fish industries.

There is also a one per cent tolerance for GM ingredients allowed in foods before they need to be labelled, and additives under 0.1 per cent do not need to be declared.

Restaurants, take-away food outlets and vending vans can sell genetically modified food and are not obliged to disclose their ingredients.

Our biggest supermarket chain, Woolworths, has described the present state of labelling as confusing and wants the standard to be tightened. Our major processed food manufacturers understand there is no public support for GM foods and most, such as Nestle, Goodman Fielder and Simplot, do not use GM.

At present there are very few GM-derived products on the shelves, but it would be good to know that when they do, we could have more definitive labelling so we could make an informed decision about whether we wanted to buy them or not.