Consumers find voice in food debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 12:00am

Growing awareness of GMO technology fuels demands on the mainland for stricter laws on the labelling of ingredients

Mainland consumers are starting to flex their muscles over the issue of genetically engineered food.

Chief among them is Shanghai resident Zhu Yanling.

Ms Zhu launched the country's first consumer lawsuit on the issue when she sued Nestle, claiming the food giant was selling a product containing a genetically modified ingredient without proper labelling.

The court ruled against Ms Zhu based on an agriculture ministry test which showed the company's chocolate milk powder contained no genetically modified organisms (GMO).

The national standard used to determine the outcome of the case only requires labelling GMO food products made directly from transgenic crops like soy oil, so processed food products with some ingredients derived from GMO crops were not covered, she claimed.

'I don't oppose GMO technology, but personally I am conservative about eating GMO food. I don't want to risk trying these products,' Ms Zhu said.

Ms Zhu and her lawyer, Wu Dong, are not giving up. They insist that stricter standards should be applied to the case, saying consumers have a legal right to be informed about food ingredients under consumer laws.

Mainland consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their rights, including the right to know whether the food they choose contains GMO ingredients.

'To me, a decade or so is just too short in terms of food testing. I would rather eat foods that have stood the test of time, and I am even more reluctant to let my small child eat GMO foods,' Ms Zhu said.

Ms Zhu studied in Europe and brought her knowledge of the GMO debate back to the mainland. A recent survey by environmental group Greenpeace showed that Chinese consumers were becoming more aware of the issue.

Labelling of GMO ingredients was favoured by 87 per cent of respondents in a poll of 600 residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, conducted in February. Greenpeace campaign manager for genetic modification issues in China, Sze Pangcheung, said: 'Consumers want the right to know and choose whether the food they are consuming is genetically engineered or not. Consumers are increasingly concerned about genetically engineered food.'

He urged the government to revise the law on labelling to cover all food products that use or are derived from genetically modified organisms.

The government has been quick to accept genetically engineered crops because of hopes the technology will raise crop yields. Few consumers realise that up to 70 per cent of soybean products sold on the mainland contain GMO ingredients, experts say. With soybeans a key component of the Chinese diet, it is impossible to stay GMO-free.

In an effort to feed the world's largest population, China leads the world in crop biotechnology research and development. Its research capacity for genetically modified rice is probably the largest outside North America, said Chen Zhangliang, president of China Agriculture University and a specialist in genetic engineering.

'Genetically modified rice is still in the field trial stage. Although I believe the technology is mature enough for commercialisation, the government hasn't approved it because of various biosafety concerns about food and environment, which is quite a complicated issue,' he said.

Professor Chen is confident genetically modified rice is safe and expects the government to change policies which have limited the crop to field trials.

Some GMO supporters argue that required labelling shows discrimination and plays on fears towards such products. Scientists have yet to find solid evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful, but nor can they prove they are 100 per cent safe.

Given the uncertainty, consumers say they have the right to know what the food they eat contains.