Genetically Modified Foods: briefing

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11 April 2000
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

11 April 2000

Documents handed out:
Fact sheet outlining dangers of genetically engineered foods

Chairperson: Dr S A Nkomo

The briefing covered the following main areas: a short description of the process that produces Genetically Modified Organisms in food; major concerns in relation to this scientific development; the South African situation as well as the international trend pertaining to consumer protection. The dominant issue was the labelling of food containing Genetically Modified Organisms.

The Director of Food Control Department in the Department of Health, Dr Venter, explained that genetic modification is a scientific process that facilitates the transfer of genes of one organism into the gene construct of another. The organism may be alive or inanimate. The purpose of this is mainly to make the organism resistant to factors that naturally interfere with its growth, multiplication and life span. This means that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are engineered to withstand hostile climate, natural time span, shortage of water, bacterial attacks and so forth.

He explained that the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 will come into effect only as from 1 December 2000. This Act is aimed mainly at protecting the environment and does not make labelling mandatory or even address that issue. The Health Department is currently drawing up regulations that will govern the labelling of food with GMOs.

On the international front, the environmental and consumer lobbies are unequivocally opposed to GMOs and call for total banning, while others call for labelling of GMOs. These positions are similar to those found in South Africa. The import and export labelling of GMOs by countries is hindered mainly by America and Codex - Alimentarius Commission in the UN (they indirectly speak on behalf of producers).

Dr Venter advanced that the best safe-guarding method is strict control in the production and laboratory process, and to label food containing GMOs. However for South Africa this would be very expensive, especially the labelling of food with GMOs.

Dr Rabie (NNP) asked how was it established that only live genetics are dangerous? Why is the issue of labelling not taken forward urgently and legislation drafted on this first? Is it not best that a moratorium be placed on foods containing GMOs as is the case in the UK?

The Department replied that the live genetics are not any more dangerous than those that are inanimate. Precautionary measures ought to cover all that is GMO-related. There is no moratorium currently in place in the UK.

Dr Mbulawa (ANC) wanted to know when the labelling issue will appear in the Government Gazette.

The Department was unable to give a specific time frame. However it would occur in the near future.

Dr Rajoo (IFP) asked where the register of food containing GMOs is and how is it controlled?

The Department said there is no such register of food containing GMOs. The register available contains listings of GMOs.

Dr Cwele (ANC) sought to know of measures taken by the Department to deal with shortage of personnel with necessary legal expertise to expedite legislation in this regard? How is the Department going to communicate the issue of foods containing GMOs to the illiterate?

The Department said it is concerned about its understaffed legal section. Presently there is only one full time person who has been assigned the task of devising solutions to deal with the proper and effective means of information dissemination to illiterate people.

Mrs Njobe (ANC) said it is very disturbing to hear the Department saying labelling will not be much help since this will not be of much help to illiterate people. Those who are illiterate have the same concerns as the literate section of the population.

Dr Mbulawa asked why South Africa is embarking on the GMO food production exercise when many countries around the world are beginning to reject this option.

The Department responded that there is no clear international consensus regarding the matter.

To Dr Cwele's question on whether it is correct to conclude that some expensive food shops' claim that their food-stuff is healthy may be misleading, The Department answered to the affirmative. It was explained that some of those making such claims may even themselves not be aware that they are wrong. It may be legislated that farmers, for example, label their produce but that is still difficult to regulate.

Dr Jassat (ANC) wanted to know why labelling of food consumed in large quantities by many people, such as maize and soya produced from modified crops, is not to be subjected to mandatory legislation.

The Department said it has held workshops and consulted widely, consumer representatives included, and though it is easy to legislate, enforcement is extremely difficult. The other option may be to label everything and if, upon inspection a product is not labelled, it must be tested This will prove to be extremely costly, however.

At this point the Chairperson interrupted Dr Venter and asked why is he not considering Dr Rabie's suggestion that the producers pay for the labelling. He then suggested that Dr Venter should raise this issue in the Department's strategy-meeting on Friday (14 April 2000).

The Chairperson commented that the Department has to finalise the legislation since it has been working on the matter for approximately five years.

A committee member said she is concerned that there might be animal genes in vegetables now because of this modification. The Department said it is not aware of this.

The Chairperson said there is a theory that cattle which were fed animal feed containing unknown substances had subsequently passed different types of illnesses to those who ate meat from those cattle. He asked the Department to shed light on this matter.

The Department explained that those cattle that caused the illnesses had actually eaten animal feed that contained parts of animals which had to be destroyed because they had contracted a certain disease. It was not because of genetic modification chain-reaction.

The second presenter gave a very brief outline on risk-assessment. She said genetic modification is a very complex process and assessment of risk in the process is equally technically complex. The process takes place in the laboratory and, when danger is detected, the process is stopped immediately. She then quoted a scientist who said biotechnology is going to be a major factor in the meeting to be held in Japan soon. There is indeed a general consensus that there ought to be guide lines, and labelling must only be for consumers to make their own choice. Danger must be stopped in the laboratory.

The Chairperson said the meeting had taken longer than the allocated time and he could therefore not allow any more questions. The meeting was adjourned.


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