Moving too slowly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 February, 2000, 12:00am

Thank you to Nestle Hong Kong for its decision to remove genetically modified ingredients from all its food products.

It deserves our congratulations for responding to consumers. It is a pity that Greenpeace chose to celebrate Nestle's decision in such a negative way - demonstrating with banners saying 'Nestle surrendered'.

It is also a positive sign for consumers that the Government is finally making progress toward the compulsory labelling of these ingredients. However, here I am in full agreement with Greenpeace - the Government is moving too slowly. It is of little use for Nestle or the Government to make statements on this issue if action is not taken in a timely manner.

From statements made by the Government, it seems that part of its hesitation is because it sees that drafting and enforcing the legislation will be difficult. But another part of its reluctance seems due to its perception that labelling means a food is unsafe. Unsafe food should be banned, not labelled. Labelling is about information and choice, choice for the consumer.

Many people have a need or desire to read the food labels. People with allergies to certain things, people with medical conditions, or people with religious or personal reasons for avoiding certain foods want to know exactly what they are buying.

Names of products do not tell you what ingredients the products contain. You might think that Doll Shrimp Shao Mai could be eaten by someone who eats fish but not meat. You would be wrong to think so. The packaging states that this product also contains pork. Without this information on the label, those people wishing to avoid meat would be deprived of their right to choose what they eat because of a lack of information.

Putting labels of ingredients on food products is not done because the ingredients are dangerous and shouldn't be eaten, but so that people can control their own nutrition and diet and make informed choices. Saying that labelling is not necessary because something is not harmful seems to be misinterpreting the reason for labelling.

Consumers have made it clear that they want to know what foods contain genetically modified ingredients. They want the right to choose whether they consume these ingredients or not. Without labelling, this choice is denied to them. While I applaud the statements made by the Government, I urge it to take action now to protect consumers' rights to know and to choose what they eat.