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3-Food: Hong Kong Consumer Council calls for risk assessment and labelling of GM food



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Shoppers left in dark over genetically altered food
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
March 21, 1999
Jo Pegg

THOUSANDS of foods with genetically engineered ingredients - the focus of 
an international health debate - could be sold to local shoppers every 
day without their knowledge. Technology in which a gene from one species 
is introduced into another, usually to make it bigger, more nutritious or 
hardier, could be present in products ranging from bread to ice-cream. 
But shoppers here have no way of knowing exactly what they are buying.

The Consumer Council wants the Government to force food producers to 
label all items that have genetically modified ingredients. Tomatoes, for 
instance, can be treated with a fish gene from flounder to make them 
frost-resistant. Some potatoes have been genetically modified to repel 
insects. And soya beans, commonly used in products including biscuits, 
mayonnaise and vitamin pills, have been made resistant to weed killer by 
the introduction of genetic material from a virus, a bacterium and a 
petunia.

While most experts believe the practice is safe, consumer groups and some 
eminent scientists fear that unwanted attributes from the genes are 
introduced into the new food, creating a health risk. In one widely 
reported case, people with nut allergies who ate beans that had been 
treated with Brazil nut genes to give them more protein developed an 
allergic reaction. And moral rights campaigners say people who object to 
modified food on ethical grounds are entitled to choose what they eat.

Hong Kong Consumer Council head of research Connie Lau Yin-hing said the 
Department of Health had been asked to make labelling compulsory and to 
research the safety of modified foods. "As a matter of principle, the 
consumer has a right to know what they're going to eat," she said. The 
department said it was monitoring developments abroad. "But this being a 
new matter, we think the consumer also has the right to know about it 
while worldwide consensus is still to be finalised," Ms Lau said. Ms Lau 
said tomatoes, soya beans and maize were the modified foods most likely 
to be in Hong Kong shops. "These are raw ingredients and they could be 
made into 1,001 things." Labelling of all modified foods is mandatory in 
several countries, including India, Norway, Switzerland and South Korea. 
Certain modified products must be labelled in Britain, France, Germany 
and Finland. Britain last week announced a voluntary three-year freeze on 
growing genetically modified crops while safety tests are done. Ms Lau 
said the council had not asked shops and suppliers to label products, but 
was pleased City'super, was labelling some food as being free of modified 
ingredients. A Health Department spokesman said the Government was 
awaiting the outcome of an international forum on modified food at the 
end of this year before revising laws on labelling.


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