Over the past few years, an unprecedented large-scale experiment has been taking place with the world's food supply. Quietly and with very little media attention, large "biotechnology" companies have been rapidly introducing genetically engineered foods into the food supply. The companies promoting these foods claim they are safe. Public opinion polls show the vast majority of people want these foods labeled.
Foods and food ingredients produced from GMOs within Europe have to be labelled according to European Commission Regulation (EC) No 258/97 (Novel Foods Regulation) and Regulation (EC) No 1139/98 (labelling of two particular GM soya and maize products). This means that they have to be labelled when they contain protein or DNA resulting from genetic modification.
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on 10 August 1999 released its list of 30 items for which it plans to require mandatory labelling showing that the product contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Mandatory GMO labelling for the products will go into effect from spring 2001. The labelling will apply to all domestically produced and imported foods.
On 22 October 1999 the Standing Committee for Foods in the European Commission provided a favourable opinion on two Commission draft Regulations concerning the issue of GMO labelling. These measures would enhance legal certainty for both operators and consumers, firstly by introducing a de minimis labelling threshold of 1% of ingredients individually considered, and secondly by making foods containing GMO additives and flavourings produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) subject to the same labelling rules as those of the Novel Foods Regulation. The draft measures do not intend to lay down rules for the use of labelling claims of the "GMO-free" type. The Commission is expected to adopt the measures around the end of the year.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) current policy concerning labeling of genetically engineered foods may not adequately protect public health. Food allergic consumers protect themselves from allergic reactions by avoiding those foods or substances to which they are allergic. Peanut allergic consumers, for example, do not eat whole peanuts and read food labels so that they do not ingest foods containing peanuts as an ingredient. In the case of genetically engineered foods, consumers may not be able to discriminate between genetically engineered foods that cause allergic reactions and other, non-allergenic foods. Most genetically engineered foods will look just like other foods, and FDA will only require labeling of genetically engineered foods under exceptional circumstances - for example, if there is evidence that a substance added to a food is allergenic. However, should an allergen added to a genetically engineered food not be detected by industry's current rudimentary screening procedures, allergic consumers would likely not be able to avoid foods containing the allergen.
The EU has long maintained that GM foods are unsafe until proven otherwise. In 2000, the US and the EU signed an agreement, the Montreal bio-safety protocol, which agreed that this "precautionary principle" should apply to the export of GM foods. It also agreed to the voluntary labelling of GM foods in order to give consumers a choice. However, talks over how to implement a voluntary labelling agreement have stalled, despite a deadline of 31 December 2002.
The U.S.—the largest exporter of GMO products—has called GMO labelling unnecessary and wants any labelling regimes to be science-based and comply with WTO rules.