Consumer news: Genetically-modified food to hit shelves in the New Year

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The Independent Online
Up to 60 per cent of products on supermarket shelves will contain genetically-modified ingredients from the New Year.

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, explains how retailers' opposition to the new food technology has been circumvented.

All foods containing genetically-modified soya and maize protein are to be labelled under an agreement announced by the food industry today.

The labels will be applied to more than half of manufactured products from next year, including meat and savoury items, bread, pastries, margarine and spreads, chocolate, beer and baby food. Soya or maize protein is added to these foods, mostly to improve their texture and consistency.

UK supermarkets which have opposed the introduction of genetically-modified foods on the grounds that they were of no benefit to the consumer have been forced to accept them by the superior financial muscle of US food producers.

Most soya protein used in Britain is imported from the US, where 15 per cent is grown from genetically-modified seed. However there is no requirement on US producers to segregate the genetically-modified product from the unmodified one and UK manufacturers have no way of knowing which they are using.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation said: "It is highly likely that soya arriving in the UK now contains some which has been genetically modified ... as [products] start appearing they will be labelled."

The labels will be unequivocal, stating that the product contains genetically- modified ingredients, not that it "may" contain them, she said.

Today sees the launch of a new exhibition at the Science Museum. Entitled "Future Foods" it will be opened by Tessa Jowell, the public health minister, and Jeff Rooker, agriculture minister, and predicts that consumers will soon be able to choose from potatoes that make low-fat chips, broccoli that helps prevent cancer and strawberries that last longer.

Genetically-modified soya, developed in the US, has been altered to make it resistant to a pesticide known as Roundup. This allows crops to be sprayed with Roundup at an early stage, killing weeds but without damaging the soya itself, increasing yields.

Some supermarkets have resisted the development because of consumer fears and because the benefits were all on the farmers' side. A spokeswoman for Asda said: "We have not stocked any foods made entirely of genetically- modified ingredients and we keep a list of foods guaranteed to be free of them. We are not against them provided they can be shown to have benefits for customers."

Professor Dick Flavell, director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, said genetically-modified wheat and barley would soon follow soya and maize. "Unless there is a backlash on a large scale across Europe to make the US change the way it handles things it is going to be inevitable," he said.

"I personally am quite confident in the technology provided it is monitored on a case-by-case basis. We have always known that certain modifications, such as introducing a nut protein, could be hazardous [to those with a nut allergy]. Those who want the technology banned are undermining the position of the starving people in Ethiopia."