Higher prices for non-GM corn will see more and more of Japan’s food and drink laced with biotech ingredients. Suppliers in the US will be the main beneficiaries, but Michael Fitzpatrick predicts this will trigger a call for 100% labelling of GM foods as consumer concern mounts.

Food processing companies in Japan trying to keep out GM ingredients were dealt another blow when it was learnt that the nation’s top corn starch supplier would be upping significantly the price of its non-biotech supplies.

Because of costs and the difficulties of tracing supplies and maintaining separation, the Japan Starch and Sweeteners Industry Association (JSSIA) said it would no longer be supplying non-biotech corn and approved biotech varieties at the same price. Industry analysts say this will lead to increased use of bio products in the future, despite consumer reluctance to buy food and drink containing GMOs.

“GM starch will form the basis of the nation’s food and drink supplies”

In an attempt to avoid unapproved GM products and possible contaminated corn, Japanese trading houses cut imports from the US dramatically last year. Previously Japan imported 4 million tonnes of corn for food use each year and another 12 million tonnes for animal feed. The country was the US’s biggest customer for corn, much of it going to the starch and sweetener industry.

This figure was cut by half as food and drink companies went in search of Identity Preserved corn supplies.

Price change could be good news for US suppliers

With Japan deep in deflationary spiral and retail prices at an all time low, the news from JSSIA was about the last thing the food and drinks industry needed to hear. However Japan’s present GM labelling laws means that many companies may get round the prohibitive costs of sourcing non bio corn by going back to cheaper US supplies, says Cary Sifferath, director of the US Grains Council in Tokyo.

“As long as GM ingredients do not exceed 5% of the contents,” he explains, “their presence does not have to be declared. And as for beer, GM ingredients don’t have to be declared at all, so many companies will be using bio corn starch based ingredients – they simply won’t declare it.”

Under pressure to stay GM-free

Despite the implications for consumers, the industry has been very quiet about the changes made by JSSIA Sifferath says. However, some companies say they will scrupulously stick to non-GM sources as their customers demand it.

“Japanese imports of US corn … are now close to pre-StarLink levels”

Sweet maker Amidaike Daikoku president Ryutaro Kobayashi says his company is under great pressure from clients and even from the government not to use GM ingredients.

“We always present a guarantee certificate of non-GM from the trading company when we begin dealings with customers,” he says. “At the beginning when the problem of GM arose, we used corn from Australia because of the possibility that GM was included in the corn from the United States. Now we have returned to using corn from the United States but only IP non-GM corn.”

US imports have risen close to pre-StarLink levels

Worries seem to have subsided somewhat over the provenance of US corn. But as JSSIA supplies over 90% of the corn starch used in Japan, it is almost certain GM starch will form the basis of the nation’s food and drink supplies as Sifferath predicts.

“JSSIA has assured us that it plans to return to predominantly US sources now,” Sifferath says. “And there are clear indications that this is already taking place. Japanese imports of US corn for starch and sweetener production have increased incrementally over the past several months and are now close to pre-StarLink levels.”

The switch to non-bio identity preserved corn in Japan was prompted by the discovery of banned gene-spliced StarLink corn in Japanese food products last October and by the introduction of stricter labelling laws for GMOs this April. StarLink has not been approved for human consumption in the US or Japan because of fears over allergies.

Investigations traced the errant corn supply back to the US. Wary Japanese traders then switched to other more reliable sources. In one year US corn’s share of the Japanese starch and sweetener market fell by half as traders switched to identity preserved, non-biotech corn.

Certain manufacturers adamant they will not buy GM corn

Some major beer and beverage manufacturers such as Kirin insist they will continue to buy only IP derived corn starch, mostly sourced from Brazil and China.

“Consumers in Japan are as wary of GM foods as Europeans – or perhaps even more so”

“Kirin has not changed its policy about biotech corn and will continue to keep buying duplicate materials such as starch from IP-handled corn through Japanese traders such as Mitsubishi Corp.,” said Kirin spokesman Makoto Ando.

But with profit margins slashed to a minimum, particularly in the beer industry, other manufacturers are going to find biotech American corn increasingly attractive, says a food industry insider.

“Traders seem to have given in to price pressure and are no longer willing to pay a premium to buy high quality, non-GMO commodities,” says Satsuki Gohda. “Costs that they were unwilling or unable to pass onto the processors until now.”

Consumers remain wary of GM foods

Consumers in Japan are as wary of GM foods as Europeans, perhaps even more so, Gohda explains. But rampant deflation in Japan is making it difficult for companies to pass on the extra cost of using IP products.

“Japanese food makers have repeatedly fallen foul of regulations when they failed to detect banned GM ingredients and have increased the worries of consumers here,” she says.

A flurry of food scandals has also seriously undermined public trust in the food industry here. Stealth GMOs, those not needed to be declared on packaging, will simply alienate a wary public even further say the head of an organic food cooperative who declined to be named.

A recent poll by the Japanese government shows that the food industry in Japan will use GMOs at its peril.

“Stealth GMOs will alienate a wary public”

The Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications – Administrative Evaluation Bureau – conducted a public opinion poll on food labelling in May 2002. The result of the poll shows that 80% of Japanese consumers demand stricter GMO labelling.

Expert Analysis

World Food Processing Machinery

This report details the market for industrial food processing machinery, parts and attachments worldwide. It gives historical data through 2001 plus forecasts to 2006 and 2011 by machinery type and for 6 geographic regions of the world and 33 individual countries.


It remains to be seen what impact the revelation  that Japan’s food and drinks will be laced with more GMOs from now on will have on consumer habits, but it is likely consumer pressure will bring in 100% labelling for GMO ingredients.