The saying 'you are what you eat' is a good reminder of the need to eat healthily. To do that, one has to know what is in the food and be able to make informed choices. The growing use of biotechnology in food processing, has made access to such information more important. But this has not yet been recognised by the government.
Ten years ago a public consultation showed people were clearly in favour of legislation to provide for the labelling of genetically modified products. But the government opted for voluntary guidelines in 2006, citing reasons like high compliance costs for the industry and the lack of international consensus on testing standards. That means Hong Kong is lagging behind the world in mandating labelling of genetically modified products. The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the mainland and Taiwan have already imposed such requirements.
A recent test by the Consumer Council on soy drinks should provide officials with some food for thought. Of the 50 samples tested, half were found to contain GM material. While the amount in most samples was too small to be quantified, none of them were billed as genetically modified. Some even claimed to be 'made with non GM soy beans'. The findings have prompted some to question whether a non-binding guideline issued five years ago is still the right approach. There is a strong case to restart the debate on whether a mandatory regime is needed.
Re-engineering genes to make crops and other produce stronger, more nutritious, and cheaper has the potential to bring many benefits in a world where demand for food is rising and there is no conclusive evidence that GM food is harmful to health. But consumers are entitled to know whether the food they are buying has been genetically modified or not. Certainly, the impact of any new labelling laws on the industry would have to be carefully considered. But consumers should be able to make informed choices about what they buy.