Malaysian study examines the pros and cons of mandatory GMO labelling

Malaysian researchers, after an extensive review of international scientific and legal frameworks related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), have concluded that mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods is justified.

When Malaysia introduced mandatory labelling laws for GM foods, the researchers at University Kebangsaan Malaysia began to study whether such laws were justified. They used scientific, legal and policy documents in North America, the European Union and Asia.

The study became an in-depth review of literature, legislation and labelling regimes worldwide.

GM food proponents, adopting a concept known as “substantial equivalence”, says these foods are functionally the same and thus as safe as their natural counterparts, with no need for special labelling.

Opponents worry that national scientific and legal frameworks may have been somehow tilted to be industry-friendly.

The research team argues that the “substantial equivalence” concept lacks adequate scientific backing. As long as safety remains incompletely proven, legislation should acknowledge potential hazards as well as perceived pluses, and set up ways to manage them.

They do not write off biotechnology or GM foods. But until more is known, they say, it is prudent to acknowledge and address uncertainties about their effects on people, animals and plants. Mandatory labelling fits within that approach, even if it adds costs.

In the long-term, they say, it could prevent unexpected harm. In the meantime, it can educate consumers and allow those with religious, medical or social objections to avoid GMOs.

Accordingly the team says Malaysia’s mandatory labelling legislation for GMOs is justified. As long as some producers or manufacturers fear negative consumer reactions to labelled GM products, voluntary labelling would be inconsistent at best.

People have a right to know what kind of food they eat, the team concludes, and this justifies Malaysia’s GMO labelling laws.

In New Zealand (see the rules here) GM foods, ingredients, additives, or processing aids that contain novel DNA or protein must be labelled with the words “genetically modified”. Novel DNA or protein is defined in the Food Standards Code as DNA or a protein which, as a result of the use of gene technology, is different in chemical sequence or structure from DNA or protein present in counterpart food, which has not been produced using gene technology.

Labelling is also required when genetic modification results in an altered characteristic in a food(EG: soy beans with changed nutritional characteristics such as an increase in their oleic acid content).

GM labelling is not about safety. It is about helping consumers make an informed choice about the food they buy.

All GM foods and ingredients must undergo a safety assessment and be approved before they can be sold in Australia and New Zealand.

The decision on how GM foods are labelled was made by the ministers responsible for food regulation in 2001.

In January 2011, recommendation 29 of an independent review of food labelling recommended that the existing labelling provisions for GM foods should remain. In December 2011, ministers agreed that the existing labelling provisions were appropriate.

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