The consumer watchdog has called for mandatory labelling of all food products with genetically modified ingredients after finding some so-called 'GM-free' soy drinks actually contained a significant amount of the material.
The Consumer Council tested 50 soy drinks - including ready-to-drink and powder - from supermarkets, convenience stores and other retail outlets. Half of them had at least a trace of GM materials, but none of them said so on the packaging. Thirteen claimed they were 'GM-free'.
Four samples contained quantifiable amounts of GM elements.
Chiba Soybean Milk contained 1.1 per cent of GM elements, the largest amount in all samples. Yon Ho Soybean Drink and Tai Wo Soybean Milk claimed to be 'non-GMO', even though they contained 0.2 to 0.5 per cent of GM elements.
Hong Kong has no specific legislation governing the sale and labelling of GM food. Voluntary labelling guidelines set in 2006 by the Centre for Food Safety suggest a 'genetically modified' tag for products exceeding 5 per cent GM components.
'Although there is no immediate proof of any health hazard caused by eating GM food, consumers have the right to know the truth and make their personal choices,' said Ambrose Ho Pui-him, chairman of the council's publicity and community relations committee.
He said the use of absolute labelling such as 'GM free' or 'contains no GM soy' was misleading because a zero GM level was very difficult to achieve, given the prevalence of modified soyabeans in world markets.
At least a trace of GM material could be found in most food products due to an unintentional mixing of GM and non-GM crops.
The consumer council wants the government to implement compulsory GM food-labelling for all prepackaged food, as well as tighten the threshold.
Dr Wallace Lim, associate professor at Hong Kong University's School of Biological Science, said: 'Even 100 per cent GM organisms in the food would cause no harm to health, but consumers should be informed so they can have their own preference.'
He said producing more GM crops was a good way to increase food production for the growing world population.
A Centre for Food Safety spokesman said countries such as Canada, Japan and Taiwan also set the GM threshold level at 5 per cent.
He said GM foods were subjected to rigorous safety assessments by the industry and regulatory agencies of the places of origin before they were put into the market.
A survey by environmental group Greenpeace released in 2008 found none of 894 pre-packaged food items at ParknShop and Wellcome stores carried such labels.
The group also estimated that about 70 per cent of pre-packaged food on sale in the city might contain genetically modified organisms.
The labelling of nutrition information on all prepackaged food products became compulsory in July last year, but details on GM materials are not included.