Confusion and delays have marked the process of mandating the labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods, whether domestically produced or imported.
In September, the Ministry of Environment gave up its responsibility of regulating the import of GM foods under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 by notifying the exemption of such foods from the regulatory approval processes. Who will now regulate GM food?
The Health Ministry is far from ready. This lackadaisical approach does little to protect consumer interest or allow consumers to make an informed choice. A sizeable proportion of processed food imports contains products of GM crops (mainly corn, soyabean and cotton or their derivative products such as oil). As most of the supplier countries (the US, for instance) do not segregate GM and non-GM varieties or insist on labelling, the suspicion is that imported goods are routinely cleared, despite the law that mandates permission from the Centre for import of GM foods.
Currently, when goods reach Indian shores, there is no mechanism for the government to ascertain the nature of the ingredients used. Also, the country's borders are porous and clearance procedures at various entry points are far from strict. Quarantine and Port Health Offices are inadequately equipped with testing instruments and human resources. The only way consumers can get information on ingredients used in a food product, and make an informed purchase is through the declaration of contents, including ingredients, on the labels of food items on the store shelves.
The sooner this labelling requirement is enforced the better. Ironically, it is not only imported food, but also domestically produced GM food that is not labelled. For instance, the country produces over 6 lakh tonnes of cottonseed oil, over half of which is from GM seed. Soyabean oil (15-20 lakh tonnes a year) is imported from countries that are known to produce GM soyabean. Yet, consumers here have no knowledge at all about what they are eating.
A draft notification for labelling of GM foods/ingredients under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 was published as far back as March 2006 inviting objections and suggestions from the public; but for reasons far from clear, the draft rules were not finalised. In August 2006, an integrated food law in the form of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 was enacted and a final notification on regulations for labelling and disclosing the ingredients of products was issued, to come into effect on August 20, 2007. Now, under pressure from the food industry, which could not comply with the labelling requirement despite a 12-month lead time, the Government has deferred implementation of the provisions till February 20, 2008. So much for consumer protection.