New law will enforce labelling of contents of GMO foods
Linda Ensor, Political Correspondent
Business Day, 17 September 2008
CAPE TOWN – Labelling of the genetically modified contents of food will become mandatory once the Consumer Protection Bill is implemented, and producers, importers, distributors and retailers will be held liable for any damage these products might cause.
Parliament's trade and industry committee decided to include these controversial provisions in the bill yesterday despite strong opposition by the health and agriculture departments and despite the technical complexity entailed.
The original version of the bill tabled in Parliament excluded genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from the goods for which there would be strict liability for damage but this changed once the committee decided to go the labelling route.
Currently, labelling is applied on a voluntary basis under the health department's health safety laws and is mandatory only in extreme cases of genetic modification.
Government's policy is to support the development of GMO foods and the agriculture department, which administers the GMO Act, was apparently concerned that the obligation to label would send confusing messages.
The committee's decision was welcomed by civil society organisations involved in biosafety matters as a breakthrough which would keep SA abreast with best international practice with regards to consumer protection.
But Business Unity SA was against the inclusion, saying that GMO labelling was a technical matter which should be managed by the technical regulator - the agriculture department.
Committee members of all political persuasions felt strongly that consumers had to be informed so that they could choose whether or not to consume GMO products.
The new enabling clause introduced into the bill ”” adopted by the committee yesterday ”” reads that "any person who produces, supplies, imports or packages any prescribed goods must display on or in association with the packaging of those goods a notice in the prescribed manner and form that discloses the presence of any genetically modified ingredients or components of those goods in accordance with applicable regulations".
These regulations would be those issued by the agriculture department which would still be responsible for determining thresholds and technical requirements.
The clause on labelling is less far-reaching than the one initially proposed by the trade and industry department which had been withdrawn by the time the bill arrived in Parliament.
NOTE: Doubtless the industry will be lobbying again to have this clause removed on the grounds that labelling and segregating GM crops and non-GM crops from farm to fork will cost too much. But the reality is that there was no increase whatsoever in food prices in the European Union when the EU's strict labelling policy was implemented. Likewise, Australia has labelling regs and food prices there have been unaffected. The only reason for not having GM labelling is to protect vested interests from consumer choice.