Following Kraft Food's embarrassing and costly recall of taco shells that were believed to contain GM corn not approved for human consumption, the debate on the labelling of GE food has reopened with increased vigour in the US. Questions on the feasibility of segregating normal crops from GE varieties and the reliability of testing for GMOs abound, but the answers are not forthcoming, and little agreement can be reached.

The US is a large producer of GM crops. Around two thirds of all processed food contains GM potatoes, corn or soya beans and many businesses rely on the increased yields that insect resistant or stronger crops provide. If Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich gets his way however, the industry could be subject to complete overhaul.

Kucinich is sponsoring bills requiring the labelling and safety testing of GM foods and last week spoke of the Kraft fiasco: "It concerns me, and should concern American consumers, that this is a glimpse of things to come as genetically engineered products are rushed to store shelves without real mandatory safety testing and labelling programmes in place."

Labelling "is not designed to inform people; [but] to alarm"

His comments have unnerved food companies, however. Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, warned that: "in Britain, where they have mandatory labelling, you cannot find biotech foods." Grabowski argues that the labelling of GM foods does not actually have the desired informative effect without a downside that may cripple businesses: "It is not designed to inform people; it is designed to alarm people."

The cost of labelling is also a major issue for manufacturers, but more importantly, there is a lot of confusion about what exactly should be labelled. In the EU, regulations have so far demanded labelling of direct ingredients, such as corn and soya, but current debates have surrounded the potential GM rating of an animal fed on GM material. (/news_detail.asp?art=13828)

According to Kucinich's Bill, absolutely no presence of GM material would be tolerated if a product were labelled GM free, and nearly every product in the supermarkets is touched in some way by genetic engineering. With this in mind, not only products made directly with GM crops but also joints of meat and cheese would find it incredibly hard to qualify.

Little reliability in testing

Kucinich added that labelling "would establish a higher level of responsibility among those in the biotechnology industry in controlling what is in their products," but the food industry argues that the products on the market are already subject to strict testing.

The main problem in labelling is the difficulty of segregating crops and the lack of adequate scientific tests that will accurately display GM contamination. The Institute of Food Technologists reported last week that to provide grain with less than 1% GM content could be unrealistic: the US agricultural system moves grain so quickly that it tolerates 2-7% of foreign matter in bulk shipments, and analysts believe that the sheer cost of duplicating grain elevators, trucks and barges could lead to prohibitive retail prices.

Since the Kraft recall, many small companies have marketed tests that purport to reveal a product's accurate GM content. Each test can be subject to misinterpretation however; they operate at different levels of sensitivity and the scientists need to know exactly what they are looking for. Importantly, test results can also differ once the food has been processed, as heating and other stages in food preparation can destroy both the protein created by the implanted gene and the implanted DNA itself.

Eluned Jones, associate professor of agriculture and agribusiness at Virginia Tech, explained: "Unless you know the history of the sample, you don't know what you are testing for. It has to start at the farm level. You can't just test it at the final level and put a label on." Some experts have even doubted the conclusion of the scientific test results that showed that StarLink was present in Kraft's taco shells. Aventis Crop-Science said last Friday (22 September) that the StarLink test might have confused the corn with another ingredient. The USDA is establishing a laboratory that will develop standardised tests and certify testing laboratories.

The food and biotechnology industries are, despite all the difficulties, just as interested as Kucinich in making crop segregation and safety testing work. They remain anxious however to continue with their production and focus on GM innovations, such as tomatoes high in cancer-fighting substances, without battling inefficient bureaucratic paperwork or flagging consumer confidence. They argue the need to keep the situation in perspective, reminding the Democrat and the public that there is actually no scientific evidence that proves that GM foods are harmful to human consumers. GM labelling issues are also gathering a high profile in the EU, Australia and in Japan, but until the regulations are standardised and realistic, there can be little agreement between the biotechnology industries and its opponents.


Other News Articles on the Kraft Foods story:

USA: Kraft calls for increased GM regulation

USA: Aventis halts sale of corn seeds linked to Kraft recall

USA: Kraft Foods announces voluntary recall of all Taco Bell Taco Shell products from grocery stores

USA: Taco Bell shells contain banned corn

USA: US Govt probes biotech corn in Taco Bell shells