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
Local food companies committing to non-GM products will benefit from
Chinas 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 worlds 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
Chinas huge population, the country imports 50% of the soya consumed,
mainly from the US, Brazil and Argentina. A large portion of this is
Thus, Chinas 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
The labelling regulation is not a stand-alone law, but part of
Chinas 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 Chinas 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 Chinas largest
website (www.sina.com) recorded 5 000 people
signing up in just two days, 99% against Nestlés actions.
Newspapers reported Chinese consumers returning products to
Consumer pressure has played a part in gradually sidelining GM foods
from the market in China. With the exception of Nestlés Pak Fook
Fresh Soya Milk and Beancurd Dessert, and Hong Chis 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