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Moves Pick Up to Label Genetically Modified Food

October 13, 1999

Preparations are already underway for the introduction of a system that will make it mandatory to label some genetically modified (GM) food products from April 2001. As consumers become more concerned about these new items, more and more companies in the industry are beginning to label their products as non-GM; others who expect to see sluggish sales in modified items are planning to concentrate on non-GM materials. Trading companies and food-inspection firms are also working on business plans in response to GM products, and moves to freeze research and development of modified food products are gaining momentum. The labeling of GM foods looks likely to cause confusion for some time to come.

Mandatory Labeling In the Works
In August 1999 the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries released the draft version of a ruling that would require manufacturers and importers to clearly label modified food products and products that might contain GM materials. Labeling will be mandatory for 30 items, including soybeans and corn.

At present the government has permitted the domestic distribution of six GM items recognized as safe: soybeans, corn, potatoes, rapeseed, cotton, and tomatoes. Some 90% of products that are thought to use these GM materials, including cooking oil, soy sauce, and animal feed, will be exempt from labeling requirements. In practice labeling will probably be limited to just a few products, such as tofu, processed foods, corn-based snacks, and cornstarch.

The scope of products for which labeling is required has been narrowed by the limited ability of scientific testing to verify GM content. For example, the analysis of modified DNA is an effective method for checking whether a product contains GM materials. But since the DNA changes with temperature and fermentation, it is impossible to verify GM levels of highly processed products, such as cooking oil and soy sauce. In contrast, because "non-GM" labeling is undertaken voluntarily by companies, there is likely to be a deluge of products with such labeling.

Switching to Nonmodified Foods
In product lines where GM labeling is going to be mandatory, such as tofu, snack foods, and beer, many companies are planning to switch over to non-GM materials before the new system is introduced. For example, one large tofu maker aims to switch completely to non-GM soybeans in fall 1999. In the confectionery business, a growing number of firms are sounding out trading companies on the availability of non-GM materials. Commented one industrial spokesperson, "Consumers have a deep-rooted concern and resistance to GM foods, so retailers will probably not handle them."

In the beer industry, one top maker is moving toward non-GM products. At present it uses modified cornstarch as an ingredient for its beer, but by spring 2001 it plans to switch completely to non-GM brewing. At the same time, this company has put a freeze on the research and development of its own GM technology. Since 1994 it had been working on modified tomatoes, and it had succeeded in developing a species that stayed fresh longer than usual without spoiling; but now the company has abandoned plans to put seeds and seedlings on the market for the time being.

Moves Extend to Other Industries
The distribution industry is also springing into action. One leading trading company has quickly turned to the large-scale import of non-GM soybeans. It procured 30,000 tons in 1999 and plans to expand the amount from 2000. Even though the purchase and shipping of these non-modified soybeans requires the duplication of distribution networks--including the construction of special warehouses to keep the beans apart from GM soybeans--and therefore higher prices, the number of inquiries is on the rise.

Several other leading companies are moving into the inspection business, the DNA testing of food products to certify them as non-GM. One liquor manufacturer that began inspection operations in spring 1998 has seen the number of requests for inspection jump this year to about 100 a month. This number is expected to increase even further after the introduction of the new labeling system.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.