GENET archive


6-Regulation: On China's GE food labeling rules

                                  PART I
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TITLE:  GM labeling in China beset by problems
SOURCE: Nature Biotechnology, Vol 21 (8): 835-836, by Hepeng Jia
DATE:   Aug 2003

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GM labeling in China beset by problems

Beijing - Rules that require crop and food producers to label genetically
modified (GM) products in China are far from being fully implemented,
more than a year after their deadlines have passed. According to industry
insiders, the problem is due to the lack of a cost-effective method for
detecting GM products with sufficient sensitivity, coupled with business
concerns that labeling will result in a loss in competitiveness.

These difficulties provide an early warning to regions that have also
enacted labeling legislation, such as the European Union, whose rules
were adopted at the beginning of July, and the nations that signed the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which requires the identification of GM
products destined for export once the protocol is implemented in
September (see Box 1).


Box 1

Cartagena protocol imposes identification of LMOs

Labeling issues are high on the agenda worldwide since the Cartagena
Protocol on Biosafety was ratified by more than 50 states in June and is
due to be implemented on September 11, 2003. All the countries that
ratified the Cartagena Protocol are required to identify exported
products that contain living modified organisms (LMOs). The protocol
requires the producer to include documentation alongside the shipment,
instead of requiring explicit labeling, for the purpose of identifying
and tracking consignments of LMOs. Indeed, the goal of the protocol is to
address concern on how these LMOs will affect the environment. "The
primary concern is to [unambiguously identify in the documentation] any
organism that has the potential to grow," explains Worku Damena,
associate legal affairs officer at the United Nations Secretariat of the
Convention on Biological Diversity, who was involved in the protocol

Some signatories have already passed provisions to comply with the
protocol in their legislation. For example, on June 4, the European
Parliament (Strasbourg, France) agreed on new regulations that require GM
material exported from the EU to be documented with a description of its
origin and intended uses (Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 725-727, 2003). The
parties to the protocol have yet to agree on how to address cases of
noncompliance, but they are expected to do so at their first meeting
scheduled for February 2004.

Sabine Louët, New York


Unlike other countries where labeling is compulsory above a certain
percentage threshold (see Table 1), China does not define a threshold to
label GM products. Under two rules passed in 2001 by China's Ministry of
Agriculture (Safety Regulations on Agricultural Genetically Modified
Crops) and Ministry of Health (Ordinance on Genetically Modified Food),
all products made from GM organisms listed in an official registry of GM
products and all food containing transgenic material should have been
labeled no later than March 2002.

Yet, over a year after the rules were passed, no GM products in China's
stores and supermarkets are labeled as such, and green activists have
been quick to criticize the failure of industry to comply. Greenpeace's
Hong Kong branch found that 12 of 60 large food brands sold in mainland
China contained GM material, in a survey carried out in six Chinese
cities last November.

Industry insiders, such as Dou Ming, president of Beijing Orient
Agribusiness Consultants (Beijing, China), cite the lack of adequate
detection technologies as the reason for noncompliance. In his view, the
rule was created too soon before the technology was available to implement it.

Currently, GM products are detected in China using standard inspection
methods, such as the ELISA method, which can detect GM protein when
present in seeds and raw material at levels higher than 0.1%, and PCR,
which can detect recombinant DNA when it represents as little as 0.01% of
a sample. However, according to Zhu Qinghua, head of Monsanto Beijing's
inspection department, both methods cost more than $100 for each sample,
which becomes prohibitively expensive for detection in massive seed lots.

In addition, labeling could incur higher inspection costs and the expense
of setting up a traceability system that industry is not keen to pay.
According to John Killmer, head of Monsanto Beijing, implementation of
the GM labeling system should be adopted when reliable low-cost
inspection technologies become available, not before. An official with
the Chinese Agricultural Ministry's GM Organisms Office (Beijing, China),
who declined to be identified, takes a more pragmatic view about the
labeling policy: "As a new policy, the labeling system will definitely
take a long period to take root.... Such things as making inspection
standards and establishing inspection organs all need more time."

Uneven compliance makes producers slow at adopting labeling. Many worry
that if they label their products while others do not, they will lose
their competitiveness. This also contributes to the slow spread of the GM
labeling system in China, says Monsanto's Zhu.

Chinese companies that fail to comply with the labeling system risk
having their sales revenue from GM products confiscated or face a fine of
between 10,000 Yuan ($1,200) and 50,000 Yuan ($6,000). So far, no such
penalties have been reported. In the European Union, failure to comply
with labeling regulations will be sanctioned by the provision in the
national law of each member state. Similarly, each of the Australian
states will have its own penalty system, doling out fines up to A$275,000
($180,000). In New Zealand, companies risk a fine of up to NZ$20,000
($11,800) for an intentional breach of labeling law. And in Brazil,
noncompliance would lead to fines upwards of 6,000 reals ($5,600) and the
prohibition of access to loans from national banks.

Certain industry insiders in China, though, believe that there might be
an upside to labeling regulation. According to Wang Weirong, a scientist
with Fudan Xinyang Biotech (Shanghai, China), most GM-related products in
China are currently made from imported material. He says the regulation
is thus likely to form trade barriers to foreign competition, but "When
China's own biotechnologies become mature, the labeling rule might be

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Food Producers in China go GM-Free
SOURCE: Institute of Science in Society, UK, by Lim Li Ching
DATE:   Aug 3, 2003

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Food Producers in China go GM-Free

Thirty-two food producers operating in China, the largest food market in
the world, announced their official commitment not to sell GM food. Lim
Li Ching reports.

In what amounts to the first public rejection of GM food by food
producers, the 32 companies, with 53 brand names, sent formal statements
to Greenpeace in July, confirming that they do not use GM ingredients in
their products sold in China. Local companies committed to eliminating GM
ingredients include large soy sauce producers in the Southern China
region, such as Pearl River Bridge, Lee Kum Kee and Amoy, as well as a
major soymilk brand, Vitasoy. Internationally known brands such as Wyeth,
Mead Johnson, Wrigley and Lipton, which already have non-GM policies in
other countries, made similar commitments for China.

Local food companies committing to non-GM products will benefit from
China's new policy, introduced in March this year, which aims to keep
production in the largest soya production provinces in Northeast China
GM-free. Soya is a food staple in China. Not only is China the world's
fourth largest soya producer, it is also the centre of origin for soya
beans, so the impacts of GM soya on biodiversity could be great.

While Bt cotton has been commercialised in China, the government has
taken a much more cautious approach towards GM food crops. On account of
China's huge population, the country imports 50% of the soya consumed,
mainly from the US, Brazil and Argentina. A large portion of this is
genetically engineered.

Thus, China's labelling regulation stipulates that all products
containing GM ingredients should be labelled after July 2002. The
regulation outlines the mandatory labelling of all GMOs, including seeds,
animal feed and food products containing GMOs. Unless GMOs are labelled,
their sale will be illegal. This regulation is in line with consumers'
right to choose non-GM food.

The labelling regulation is not a stand-alone law, but part of China's
broader framework of 'Biosafety Regulation of GMOs in Agriculture',
originally announced in June 2001. According to this framework,
environmental releases of GMOs must be approved by relevant authorities,
and safety certification needs to be provided for imports.

There has been some concern that the regulation is poorly enforced, as
few foods containing GM ingredients sold in China's supermarkets or
stores have been labelled. But the Chinese government has recently
stepped up its efforts on enforcement, and emphasised that producers
selling unlabelled GM products would be penalised.

The commitment of the 32 companies to non-GM food appears in sharp
contrast to the record of Nestlé - caught selling GM products in China
late last year. The Swiss food giant came under fire for allegedly
selling products containing GM ingredients without the appropriate
labelling, in contravention of domestic law. Six products from Nestlé,
including snacks, chocolate confectionery and milk powder, were found to
contain unlabelled GM ingredients.

Consumer reaction was swift. One web poll on China's largest website
( recorded 5 000 people signing up in just two days, 99%
against Nestlé's actions. Newspapers reported Chinese consumers returning
products to Nestlé's offices.

Consumer pressure has played a part in gradually sidelining GM foods from
the market in China. With the exception of Nestle's Pak Fook Fresh Soya
Milk and Beancurd Dessert, and Hong Chi's Yung Ho Soya Milk, quantities
of GM ingredients in common foodstuffs tested by the Consumer Council
were substantially lower than those in a similar test three years ago.
Out of 26 products sampled, 12 contained GM soya. Less than 0.1% of GM
soya was found in tofu, beancurd dessert and soya milk samples, while
soya infant formula samples contained between 0.1 and 0.2%. No GM maize
or GM potato varieties were detected in any of the samples. Tests three
years earlier had shown GM soya levels of between 10 and 30% and GM maize
of up to 9%.

Public awareness on GM foods is set to further increase due to a lawsuit
filed in Shanghai against Shanghai Nestle Co. and Shanghai Lianjia
Supermarket Co. for producing and selling GM food without informing
customers. Private citizen Zhu Yanling is asking the local court that has
agreed to hear the case, to order Nestlé to label its Nesquik brand
instant chocolate drink as a GM food and is seeking 13.6 yuan (US$1.64)
in compensation - twice the amount she spent on the drink.

According to a survey conducted by Zhongshan University in December 2002,
87% of the respondents demand labelling of GM products and 56% would
choose non-GM food over GM food if given the choice. The results also
indicated that some 44% of consumers would choose a non-GM product even
if it cost 10% more than a GM counterpart. The survey was conducted among
1 000 citizens of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

GM-free moves are also being made at the local level. Recently,
Heilongjiang province, responsible for 80% of soya exports from China,
declared a policy to keep the province free from GM soya. In the
neighbouring province of Liaoning, the provincial government demanded
non-GM soya milk for school children.


 1. "Nestle slammed for selling unlabelled GM food", 2 December 2002,,

2. "Genetically Engineered Food Snubbed by Consumers in Guangzhou",
Greenpeace China, Media Release, 17 January 2003, http://www.greenpeace-

3. "Chinese public 'cautious over GM food'", by Jia Hepeng, 23 January
2003, SciDevNet,

4. "Consumers push GM food off shelves", by Heike Phillips, South China
Morning Post, 17 June 2003.

5. "Companies in China clear genetically engineered food off their
shelves: Non-GE policy becoming strong trend in the word's largest food
market", Greenpeace, 18 July 2003.

6. "GM food fight to heat up in China",, compiled by
Shanghai Daily news,



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