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3-Food: Chinese consumers become more cautious about modified foods

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Consumers become more cautious about modified foods
SOURCE: China Daily, by Liu Weifeng
DATE:   12 Aug 2004 

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Consumers become more cautious about modified foods

At Trust Mart, a large supermarket in Guangzhou, shoppers are sauntering
in front of the cooking oil shelves carefully checking out products that
feature mainly soy bean oil, corn oil and peanut oil.

Li Wen, a local resident, said if possible, she wants to choose an oil
product that contains no genetically modified content.

"There is really no final judge on the genetically modified food safety,"
Li says. "I'm a little cautious on health issues like this."

But Li is already a transgenic oil user.

"The cooking oil used in my home is made from transgenic materials, and I
just discovered it two weeks ago. My mother also uses such oil at her
home," Li said.

It's her husband, not her, who does more cooking at home and the oil is a
year-end gift from her husband's work unit.

"It's OK, but I mean, if I can choose..." Li said, representing consumers
who know the transgenic foods debate and have read up on the issue.

But the options left for Li are few since most Chinese producers of
cooking oil are already using genetically-modified soy beans and corn as
raw materials.

Arawana's cooking oil, Lu Hua's peanut blend oil, Kitchen King's cooking
oil and the rape seed oil of other major brands, all declare on their
labels that modified organisms are being used.

The country is the largest soy bean importer in the world, with a large
proportion arriving from the United States.

Last year, China imported 8.29 million tons of soy beans, worth US$2.21
billion, while in the January-May period, some 6.26 million tons of US
soy bean worth US$2.25 billion were imported.

The United States is by far the largest soy bean exporter in the world,
and about 70 per cent of the imported soy beans are from transgenic crops
and are used in manufacturing cooking oils in China.

The State food administration authority introduced a compulsory labelling
requirement for all its edible oil products made with modified soy beans
or corn on May 1.

"To be frank, the labelling does no good for our sales," a salesperson
surnamed Huang in Trust Mart told China Daily.

She said consumers who noticed the label often show critical attitudes
towards such products.

But the term "special offer" is generally the most important factor in
deciding consumer preference, she said.

"Not many people care about a label if something's got a better price,"
she explained.

There is no labelling requirement on non-oil products in China so far,
though intensive research on large varieties of food is being carried out.

Savvy consumers

Debates have accompanied research and commercialization of modified crops
throughout the world. In recent years, with the rapid spread of such
products here, dissent has come to China. Even though there has been no
large-scale opposition, more consumers are suspicious of the foodstuffs.

According to a survey carried out by Guangzhou Municipal Statistics
Bureau earlier this year, among 7,000 respondents, only 13 per cent said
they know something about transgenic foods.

The rest, said they knew nothing, and expressed their concerns on the issue.

"Two categories can be sorted out on the focus of the debate in the
world. One is the ideology, the other is trade," said Li Baojian, a
senior researcher with Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University.

Some people take unnatural food as an act of defying the God. Under that
belief, people feel eating transgenic food is sacreligious.

Others say that biotechnology involves only one real risk - tampering
with the environment.

Mei Mantong, a biologist with the Guangzhou-based University of
Agriculture, told China Daily that concern over the environment is the
only pure debate.

"The impact on the environment is a long-term issue, which is hard to
judge now," said Mei. Genetically engineered food is substantially
equivalent to conventional-bred food, Mei quoted a scientific journal as

Li pointed out modified plants even benefit the environment in some cases.

So-called Bt corn and cotton and round-up ready soy beans need only one
sixth of the chemical inputs of regular plants, which greatly reduce
pollution to rivers.

 All chemicals used to kill pests eventually converge in water sources,
he said.

It helps lighten farmers' monetary outlays for chemicals and lightens
environment pollution, Li said.

Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) has a pest-tolerance trait, while round-up
ready contains some herbicide-tolerance genes, helping plants to have
better characteristics than conventionally bred crops.

China commercialized the Bt cotton over 10 years ago.

Concerns over side effects of modified crops to human offspring were
denied by Li.

 "Dozens of lab tests show they are irrelevant to human sex cells, which
are the carriers of genes to the next generation," Li said.

Future outlays

The Chinese Government plans to provide 400 million yuan (US$48 million)
to agricultural technology in the next three years, the Ministry of
Science and Technology said at the end of May.

Investors from home and abroad are welcomed to become involved.

The recent establishment of the China Food Security Research Centre,
absorbing eminent biotechnologists from home and overseas is the best
indicator of China's stance on the biotechnology development strategy.

Li Qing, business director with China Biotechnology Development Centre,
told China Daily current policy regarding the technology is to "greatly
enhance basic research, go ahead steadily and surely on the
commercialization of the industry."


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