Wilna Jansen v Rijssen
Food labelling in South Africa is about to become stricter and more informative, and will cover genetically modified food and all foods with allergens.
The labelling regulations for foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were published in January this year after four years of debate and consultations. According to the Department of Health "the right to know" is a priority for the consumer.
GM food labels will be compulsory if there are significant differences in composition and nutrient value of any GM food from its conventional counterpart. Significant differences in storage, preparation or cooking will also have to be noted in the labelling.
If the food contains a gene from an animal or a human source, the label must say so, so that vegetarian and religious consumers can make informed choices. Products from animals fed on GM foods are, however, excluded from the new regulations.
Manufacturers may make claims for improved food characteristics from modern biotechnology, such as improved vitamin content, less natural toxins or less allergens. These claims will be subject to validation and certification.
It is estimated that the stricter regulations will come with a price tag of their own - up to 10% increase in the price of GM foods to cover the necessary laboratory tests, tracing and monitoring by government.
In addition, allergen-containing foods are to be labelled as such. These include crustaceans, eggs, fish, groundnuts, milk, mollusks, soybeans, tree nuts and wheat.
Also on the cards and potentially costly is a system known as Identity Preservation (IPS) for non-GM food. The South African bureau of Standards, SABS, in collaboration with government and other stakeholders is developing IPS, to provide consumers with a choice between GM and non-GM foods.
South Africa is a signatory to Codex Alimentarius, the body set up by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Heath Organisation (WHO) which sets international food standards. It states that claims made on food labels must not be false or misleading or make deceptive claims; that they must be substantiated; and they must not arouse or exploit fear in consumers.
While South Africa is set to implement its new labeling legislation, internationally, several debates around the labeling of GM food continues. The Codex debate on GMO labeling centers around a "declaration of the methods of production" and most recently, "the right to know". Labelling of foods has consequences for international trade and one can expect that the debate will continue.
Wilna Jansen v Rijssen is the Deputy Director: Food Control, Department of Health, South Africa. www.doh.gov.za/department/dir_foodcontr-f.html