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Published July 11, 2011, 05:20 AM

Biotech foods clear for own label

WASHINGTON — Consumer groups and the biotech industry are issuing different interpretations of a new international agreement on the labeling of food containing ingredients derived from biotech seed.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

n International agreement allows GM food label; interpretations of deal differ among groups

By Jerry Hagstrom

Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Consumer groups and the biotech industry are issuing different interpretations of a new international agreement on the labeling of food containing ingredients derived from biotech seed.

Consumers International and its member organizations, including Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, said July 5 it is celebrating a victory because the new agreement reached in Geneva at the Codex Alimentarius Commission summit would allow countries to adopt labeling of foods for genetic modification without fear of a legal challenge in the World Trade Organization.

The labeling could not be raised as a trade barrier because national measures based on Codex guidance or standards cannot be challenged as a barrier to trade, Consumers International noted. The group also said that the agreement was possible after two decades of debate because the U.S. delegation had dropped its opposition to the GM labeling guidance document, allowing it to move forward and become an official Codex text.

The Codex Alimenatarius Commission is an international organization jointly established by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization to set worldwide food safety standards. Biotech companies have maintained that foods made from genetically modified ingredients do not need to be labeled because they are not different from other foods.

Michael Hansen, Consumers International’s lead delegate at Codex and a senior scientist at Consumers Union, said in a news release, “We are particularly pleased that the new guidance recognizes that GM labeling is justified as a tool for post market monitoring. This is one of the key reasons we want all GM foods to be required to be labeled — so that if consumers eat modified foods, they will be able to know and report to regulators if they have an allergic or other adverse reaction.”

Edita Vilcapoma of the Peruvian consumer group ASPEC, who also represented Consumers International at the Codex meeting in Geneva, said: “Peru’s recent introduction of GM food labeling faced the threat of a legal challenge from the WTO. This new Codex agreement now means that this threat has gone and the consumer right to be informed has been secured. This is major victory for the global consumer movement.”

Not mandatory

Some consumer activists had wanted the commission to endorse mandatory labeling, but it did not. Samuel Ochieng, president emeritus of Consumers International and CEO of the Kenyan Consumer Information Network said: “While the agreement falls short of the consumer movement’s long-held demand for endorsement of mandatory GM food labeling, this is still a significant milestone for consumer rights.”

But the Biotechnology Industry Organization said in an email to Agweek that the “the agreement is totally consistent with the U.S. position, which we support since it says no new guidelines are needed, because the guidelines for other foods apply to biotech foods as well.” The agreement “is just a compilation of existing texts with a consideration statement that says foods derived from biotech are no different from other foods based on method of productions. It also encourages companies to be consistent with Codex guidelines,” added BIO communications director Karen Batra.

BIO noted that in a July 5 news release that the USDA Economic Research Service has released a report that shows American farmers’ use of biotech soybean and corn seed, which already was at high levels, continued to rise from 2010 to ’11. The use of genetically modified soybeans rose from 93 to 94 percent, and genetically modified corn from 86 percent to 88 percent. The use of genetically modified cotton seed fell slightly from 93 percent to 90 percent, but was higher than the 88 percent in 2009.

USDA’s Economic Research Service released a report July 1: “Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.”