Making genetically modified foods easier to spot


Genetic modification

Reading food labels

The new Truefood guide makes finding foods free of genetically modified ingredients easier for shoppers, while a review of food labelling laws could eliminate the difficulties altogether.

Credit: Clipart

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Steering clear of genetically modified foods may soon be easier for shoppers, with both an independent review into food labelling on the way and a new guide to GM-free companies being launched.

The review into Australia's food labelling laws and policies, to be chaired by former Federal Health Minister Neal Blewett, was announced at last week's Food Regulation Ministerial Council Meeting. It is set to look at consumer wants regarding food labels, as well as how those labels should be regulated by the government.

"This extensive review will play an important role both for consumers who are looking for clarity in labelling and industry who are looking for certainty about their roles and responsibilities," said Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Mark Butler, in a statement.

Green groups have suggested the review will be an opportune time for the labelling laws regarding genetically modified (GM) ingredients to be addressed. Current regulations mean that only foods with detectable DNA or protein that is the result of modification must bear the words "genetically modified".This means that foods and ingredients derived from GM origins but which do not contain detectable DNA or proteins, such as with oils and starches, do not need to be flagged as containing GM ingredients. This currently makes it near impossible for shoppers to avoid foods with GM lineages.

"Australian consumers are poorly served by our current food labeling laws, which don't provide enough information," said Greenpeace campaigner Louise Sales.

"Surveys show that 90 per cent of Australians want comprehensive labelling of all foods derived from [GM] crop ingredients. Consumers have a fundamental right to know what is in their food and how it is produced," she said.

This is a particularly pertinent issue as this year, for the very first time, an Australian harvest of GM canola will be finding its way into foods - ranging from breads and sauces to margarines and oils - after NSW and Victoria last year lifted a moratorium and started commercially growing small amounts of the GM crop.

With the food labelling review still a way off, to help GM-wary consumers navigate the shopping aisles today, Greenpeace this week launched the 2010 Truefood Guide, which lists and categorises food and beverage brands according to whether they actively avoid GM ingredients or whether they may have GM-derived ingredients in their products.

"The 2010 Truefood Guide is the biggest guide ever, as the Australian food industry answers consumer calls for [GM]-free food," said Greenpeace campaigner Rochelle Porteous. "It is the only comprehensive shopping guide that empowers Australians to avoid [GM] ingredients."

Given that the safety of GM food is yet to be proven, and the effects the crops have and may potentially have on the environment (which range from promoting pesticide use via the introduction of pesticide-tolerance traits in crops, to creating monocultures detrimental to the land or 'super weeds' that may overtake natural plants), Greenpeace said that the new guide will allow people to be informed consumers and to "vote with their wallet".

Since the release of the first Greenpeace Truefood Guide in 2003, and with consumer voices on the issue becoming stronger, more than half of Australia's top food brands have committed to non-GM policies, and this year's guide welcomes Foster's, Nestle, Schweppes and Lindt to the list of companies with such policies.