The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
Labeling for GM Foods: Theory and Practice
Peter W.B. Phillips, Heather Foster, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Genetically modified foodstuffs entered the global food system in the early 1990s and are now potentially in a wide selection of raw and processed foods. By the end of 1999 more than 40 genetic modifications related to 13 different crops were approved and produced in one of 12 countries and to varying degrees were available to other countries through international trade. A number of countries have also approved release of one or more varieties of genetically modified fish (e.g. salmon), active ingredients (e.g. brewers yeast and chymosin) and vaccines (e.g. recombinant Bovine Somatotropin and various vaccines for animals).
Although the first few years of diffusion of these new products were relatively uneventful, since 1998 consumers have become increasingly concerned about the safety of GM foods. While extensive risk assessments have been undertaken and most countries and firms have developed some level of risk management systems, risk communications has lagged so much that many consumers are demanding mandatory labelling systems to allow them to make their own choices about the products.
In response, as of Febuary 1, 2000, 16 countries plus the EU, 29 manufacturers, 21 retailers and six restaurant chains around the world have signalled intentions to adopt voluntary or mandatory labels for GM foods. To date there has not been any convergence towards common standards. Rather, coverage, tolerances, conformity measures and implementation dates vary widely. (this will be brought up to date for July).
This paper examines the theory, practice and implications of the various GM food labeling systems that are emerging around the world. Section 2 offers a short outline of the background to the recent rise in the use of labeling. Section 3 provides a summary of the theory and literature on labeling for GM foods. Section 4 briefly outlines the survey methods used to identify labeling policies and practices. Section 5 offers the results of the survey and an assessment of the trends. Section 6 offers an assessment of the economic and trade impacts of labeling on the global agri-food system. Section 7 concludes with a discussion of some of the implications of this hodgepodge of labeling requirements on international food trade.