Last month Australia introduced what were touted as the “toughest” rules in the world for labelling genetically modified foods but the impact appears to have been minimal. David Robertson finds out why.

Following consumer concerns about the use of GM ingredients the government passed legislation that forced companies to label GM products from December 7th. But in the six weeks since the introduction of the rules a tour of any supermarket reveals very few products carrying the warning. The Australian Food and Grocery Council estimates that only 5% of the 100,000 items on supermarket shelves have been relabelled and anecdotal evidence suggests the figure could be even lower – more like 2%.

“I don’t think there are many changes to notice to be honest,” says AFGC technical director Tony Downer. “There has not been a sudden change and the average consumer probably hasn’t noticed. We’d hope they would have confidence in the legislative system and are comfortable that their food is safe and appropriately labelled.”

The change has come and gone and consumers don’t appear to care. A spokeswoman for Woolworths, Australia’s largest supermarket chain, said: “We have leaflets available explaining the new rules but there really isn’t much interest being shown.”

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Despite being described as the world’s strictest GM labelling requirements there appears to have been little change. There are two reasons for this. The first is that despite claiming to be the toughest, there are still plenty of loopholes and the second is that food manufacturers switched to non-GM suppliers to beat the labelling laws.

The new rules force foods to be labelled if they contain any GM ingredients except if the GM content is less than 1%, is sold as a takeaway or in a restaurant or is a refined food – like oils, sugars and starches. Food additives like preservatives, anti-oxidants and thickeners are excluded as are processing aids, like enzymes, that are used in production but do not make it into the final product.

Lobbying against ‘process’ versus ‘product’

Anti-GM campaigners claim that having rules that cover “product” will always lend themselves to loopholes no matter how stringent they are. There have been calls for “process” labelling, which would cover any food that has had any form of GM ingredient used during its manufacture. This would bump up the 5% figure considerably and has been heavily lobbied against by the food industry.

“We get activists who want labels done for process and if manufacturers thought it was a big enough selling point we’d see a change. But it is illogical to label for process because these ingredients aren’t in the product,” says Downer.

There is also a legal argument to prevent process labelling. Experts suggest that WTO rules prevent process labelling on the grounds that it acts a technical barrier to trade – similar to proposed requirements to label tuna to show it has been caught with dolphin-friendly nets. Tuna is tuna however it is caught, said the WTO.

The new rules may be largely irrelevant but that does not mean manufacturers haven’t been forced to alter their operations.

According to surveys conducted in 2000 about 65% of Australian consumers, and 72% of women, don’t want to consume GM food and manufacturers have taken this to heart. With the new rules on the way all manufacturers spent last year undertaking lengthy examinations of every ingredient used in their products – perhaps 400 or 500 each. Where possible GM ingredients have been replaced even to the extent that most soybeans in Australia are GM free.

A bit of a non-issue?

“We have done a lot of work on this,” says Sanitarium’s Julie Praestiin. “We have sourced non-GM soy supplies and developed tracking systems to follow it right from growing to the supermarket shelves to make sure it is all GM-free. We are now a totally GM-free company. We were very aware of consumers’ concerns so it was the obvious thing to do.”

With an estimated 60% of processed foods containing one of the staple GM ingredients like soybean, canola, corn, potato, sugar beat and cotton derivatives the work done by Australian companies to switch suppliers has been massive – an exercise that is thought to have cost millions of dollars. As a result of this activity the new labelling laws have become, as Tony Downer says: “A bit of a non-issue.”

By David Robertson, correspondent