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Food Producers in China go GM-Free

Thirty-two food producers operating in China, the largest food market in the world, announced their official commitment not to sell GM food. Lim Li Ching reports.

In what amounts to the first public rejection of GM food by food producers, the 32 companies, with 53 brand names, sent formal statements to Greenpeace in July, confirming that they do not use GM ingredients in their products sold in China. Local companies committed to eliminating GM ingredients include large soy sauce producers in the Southern China region, such as Pearl River Bridge, Lee Kum Kee and Amoy, as well as a major soymilk brand, Vitasoy. Internationally known brands such as Wyeth, Mead Johnson, Wrigley and Lipton, which already have non-GM policies in other countries, made similar commitments for China.

Local food companies committing to non-GM products will benefit from China’s new policy, introduced in March this year, which aims to keep production in the largest soya production provinces in Northeast China GM-free. Soya is a food staple in China. Not only is China the world’s fourth largest soya producer, it is also the centre of origin for soya beans, so the impacts of GM soya on biodiversity could be great.

While Bt cotton has been commercialised in China, the government has taken a much more cautious approach towards GM food crops. On account of China’s huge population, the country imports 50% of the soya consumed, mainly from the US, Brazil and Argentina. A large portion of this is genetically engineered.

Thus, China’s labelling regulation stipulates that all products containing GM ingredients should be labelled after July 2002. The regulation outlines the mandatory labelling of all GMOs, including seeds, animal feed and food products containing GMOs. Unless GMOs are labelled, their sale will be illegal. This regulation is in line with consumers’ right to choose non-GM food.

The labelling regulation is not a stand-alone law, but part of China’s broader framework of ‘Biosafety Regulation of GMOs in Agriculture’, originally announced in June 2001. According to this framework, environmental releases of GMOs must be approved by relevant authorities, and safety certification needs to be provided for imports.

There has been some concern that the regulation is poorly enforced, as few foods containing GM ingredients sold in China’s supermarkets or stores have been labelled. But the Chinese government has recently stepped up its efforts on enforcement, and emphasised that producers selling unlabelled GM products would be penalised.

The commitment of the 32 companies to non-GM food appears in sharp contrast to the record of Nestlé - caught selling GM products in China late last year. The Swiss food giant came under fire for allegedly selling products containing GM ingredients without the appropriate labelling, in contravention of domestic law. Six products from Nestlé, including snacks, chocolate confectionery and milk powder, were found to contain unlabelled GM ingredients.

Consumer reaction was swift. One web poll on China’s largest website (www.sina.com) recorded 5 000 people signing up in just two days, 99% against Nestlé’s actions. Newspapers reported Chinese consumers returning products to Nestlé’s offices.

Consumer pressure has played a part in gradually sidelining GM foods from the market in China. With the exception of Nestlé’s Pak Fook Fresh Soya Milk and Beancurd Dessert, and Hong Chi’s Yung Ho Soya Milk, quantities of GM ingredients in common foodstuffs tested by the Consumer Council were substantially lower than those in a similar test three years ago. Out of 26 products sampled, 12 contained GM soya. Less than 0.1% of GM soya was found in tofu, beancurd dessert and soya milk samples, while soya infant formula samples contained between 0.1 and 0.2%. No GM maize or GM potato varieties were detected in any of the samples. Tests three years earlier had shown GM soya levels of between 10 and 30% and GM maize of up to 9%.

Public awareness on GM foods is set to further increase due to a lawsuit filed in Shanghai against Shanghai Nestlé Co. and Shanghai Lianjia Supermarket Co. for producing and selling GM food without informing customers. Private citizen Zhu Yanling is asking the local court that has agreed to hear the case, to order Nestlé to label its Nesquik brand instant chocolate drink as a GM food and is seeking 13.6 yuan (US$1.64) in compensation - twice the amount she spent on the drink.

According to a survey conducted by Zhongshan University in December 2002, 87% of the respondents demand labelling of GM products and 56% would choose non-GM food over GM food if given the choice. The results also indicated that some 44% of consumers would choose a non-GM product even if it cost 10% more than a GM counterpart. The survey was conducted among 1 000 citizens of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

GM-free moves are also being made at the local level. Recently, Heilongjiang province, responsible for 80% of soya exports from China, declared a policy to keep the province free from GM soya. In the neighbouring province of Liaoning, the provincial government demanded non-GM soya milk for school children.

Sources

  1. "Nestlé slammed for selling unlabelled GM food", 2 December 2002, just-food.com, http://just-food.com/news_detail.asp?art=52511&app=1&c=1
  2. "Genetically Engineered Food Snubbed by Consumers in Guangzhou", Greenpeace China, Media Release, 17 January 2003, http://www.greenpeace-china.org.hk/eng/gm_news_item.adp?id=402
  3. "Chinese public 'cautious over GM food'", by Jia Hepeng, 23 January 2003, SciDevNet, http://www.scidev.net
  4. "Consumers push GM food off shelves", by Heike Phillips, South China Morning Post, 17 June 2003.
  5. "Companies in China clear genetically engineered food off their shelves: Non-GE policy becoming strong trend in the word’s largest food market", Greenpeace, 18 July 2003.
  6. "GM food fight to heat up in China", English.eastday.com, compiled by Shanghai Daily news,
  7. http://english.eastday.com/epublish/gb/paper1/978/class000100022/hwz151113.htm
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