As told to Simon Parry
Fung Ka-keung, food and agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace, argues that the government is wrong to rule out mandatory labelling of genetically modified or engineered food in Hong Kong shops and says its voluntary code will fail.
Voluntary labelling will be a failure. It is negative labelling and consumers don't like genetically engineered (GE) food. So why should companies voluntarily advertise the fact that their food contains something consumers don't want? Even the trade sector has admitted that not many companies will follow a voluntary code.
We are very disappointed by the decision because in the Legislative Council this week, the government was still reluctant to consider introducing mandatory labelling, even though most legislators demanded it.
The government carried out a consultation in 2000 and the vast majority of opinion papers demanded mandatory labelling, but afterwards the government said there was no need. They are refusing to listen and are reluctant to do any further consultation.
We are being left behind by the rest of the world. Three years ago there weren't many countries with mandatory labelling systems. But now the European Union and many other countries have implemented it, including the mainland, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia and Russia.
A legislator representing the food industry even pointed out that it would be safe to follow guidelines laid down by the mainland.
The main reason given by the government is the cost to the industry. In fact, the cost would not be very high and it is a one-off cost that can be spread over a number of years. Only about 3 per cent of food companies would be affected in a major way.
Testing would be the main cost, but Hong Kong imports most of its food from other countries. If other countries around us already have mandatory testing, the cost of that process is already being factored in.
Consumers in Hong Kong have the right to know if their food contains GE ingredients. We commissioned surveys and about 90 per cent of consumers were in favour of a mandatory labelling system.
At this week's debate, one legislator said, 'We don't care whether GE food is good or bad. Consumers have the right to know'. The government just responded that GE food is not necessarily bad.
But we don't want the government to make this kind of judgment for us.
We need to give consumers the right to know, so they can judge for themselves.
There are more and more incidents where GE ingredients are being found in food products in Hong Kong. Because the food isn't labelled, consumers don't know about it.
Some of these products may be harmful. We found papaya seedlings distributed by the Hong Kong government to organic farmers that contained a GE ingredient that was actually an unknown GE species. That means it hadn't gone through any safety assessment. We have no idea whether it might be harmful.
In another incident we found a baby-food rice cereal product which included a GE ingredient banned on the mainland.
GE food has been on the market only for about 10 years and none of it has been subjected to any long-term safety assessment. Usually they just go through some very short-term safety assessment, like feeding it to mice for a few months, and if there are no problems they put it on the market.
If we find 20 or 50 years later this kind of GE food is harmful we won't be able to call it back. Once the organisms are released to the environment they will reproduce and pollute the traditional species. It is an irreversible process.
We will carry on looking at the situation to see how we can push harder on this issue. Next month the government will submit the draft of labelling guidelines to the Legislative Council. We will watch that very closely, because voluntary labelling is simply not going to work.