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3-Food: New Zealand supermarkets start to become GE-free

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TITLE:  Stores strike early with GM ban
SOURCE: The New Zealand Herald, by Irene Chapple
DATE:   November 21, 2001

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Stores strike early with GM ban

Supermarkets are ducking a potential food fight by pre-empting new 
labelling rules on GM products. They are already checking the GM status of 
food before the rules come into full force on December 7 next year. The 
move comes as the controversy over genetic modification heats up, with two 
local bodies declaring their regions GM-free. Although the step has raised 
retailers' eyebrows, they believe such moves will not see products removed 
from shelves.

Greenpeace has named five food manufacturers which it says do not have a 
written policy to be GM-free - Nestle, Pam's Products, Arnott's, Ingham 
Chicken and Kraft. Nestle and Kraft deny this, saying they have told 
Greenpeace of a GM-free policy and they are attempting to provide consumers 
with unmodified foods. Arnott's says it is trying to find new products to 
replace soy products classified as genetically modified. Ingham Chicken did 
not respond by press time.

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey has declared his city GE-free - following the 
example of the Nelson City, which became GE-free in April. To complicate 
matters, the Nelson City Council maintains that there is a difference 
between GM and GE (genetic engineering). In its zone, GM is acceptable but 
GE is not because GE would include the crossing of genes. In a Waitakere 
report, the definition is recognised as a moot point. Waitakere and Nelson 
are the only two of around 70 councils to have taken a stand so far.

Mr Harvey says Waitakere will not police supermarket shelves, nor will it 
pass bylaws on the issue. But the councils' step has raised eyebrows among 
supermarket chains. Barry Hellberg of the Retail Merchants Association has 
taken up the issue after Woolworths raised concerns that the move could 
hurt sales. The association has written to Local Government Minister Sandra 
Lee questioning the ability of councils to declare themselves GM-free.

"It is a concern if they can pass a bylaw. The supermarket industry would 
challenge that on principle," said Mr Hellberg. Brenda Cutress, of the 
Grocery Marketers Association, said any ban would be "illogical and 
impractical". The association believed modified food was "as safe as any 
other food". The chief public health adviser at the Ministry of Health, Bob 
Boyd, said local authorities could ban GM products if they were deemed 
detrimental. They could also use registration rules to ban GM food from 
food premises, but such moves were likely to be contested in court.

Woolworths marketing director Des Flynn said few GM products were among the 
16,000 product lines on supermarkets' shelves. "We are actively seeking to 
get non-GM replacements for those that [are]." There was a "high 
possibility" that Woolworths, which also runs Big Fresh and Price Chopper, 
would be GM-free once the labelling requirement came into force. Woolworths 
has contacted hundreds of suppliers and asked them to provide assurances 
their products are GM-free.

Progressive Enterprises, which runs the Foodtown, Countdown and 3 Guys 
chains, has sought a similar assurance. It has also declared its "goal" is 
to ensure its house brands, Signature Range and Basics, are GM-free.

However, New Zealand's largest supermarket operator, Foodstuffs, said it 
was simply too hard to guarantee that products were GM-free. The company 
controls just over half of all supermarket sales, largely through its Pak 
'N Save and New World chains. Its house brand, Pam's - stocked in New 
World, Four Square and Pak 'N Save - could not claim to be entirely GM-
free, said Foodstuffs' retail operations general manager, Graham Fabian. 
Foodstuffs had not required GM-free guarantees from suppliers but had asked 
them to ensure they complied with the impending labelling requirements. 
Eighty per cent of those contacted had assured Foodstuffs that their 
products were not modified. The other 20 per cent have yet to respond.

Mr Fabian believed some suppliers were shunning GM ingredients to avoid 
controversy. "I think what may be happening is that suppliers are thinking, 
'If we have this with a GM label it's going to stick out like a sore 
thumb', so they are changing it. But we are not going to go out of our way 
to source products which are GM-free." Mr Fabian said the decision was 
ultimately up to consumers. "If GM products are on the shelves and don't 
sell, we will remove them."

He also believed moves by rival supermarkets would have little effect on 
the market, as it would be uneconomic for suppliers to provide different 
products to different chains. Mr Fabian estimated that less than 5 per cent 
of products were genetically modified. He said anecdotal evidence showed 
consumers were relaxed about GM food and would not refuse to eat it.

The Technical services manager for Cerebos Greggs, Michael Liddell, also 
felt that it would be difficult to enforce GM-free zones. He said up to 15 
suppliers could be part of the production chain for a product sold through 
supermarkets. "A lot of companies are saying they can't afford to do it. It 
is a major issue logistically."


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