This week, Indian consumers will begin to learn if some of the packaged foods they buy contain genetically-modified ingredients following a gazette notification issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution.
The directive, which came into effect on New Year’s Day, states that packaged food producers must disclose any GM ingredients in their products. It will apply to a basket of 19 items, including biscuits, breads, cereals and pulses.
More detail required
Its implementation will be conducted by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) under the Ministry of Health. However, the FSSAI is yet to announce in detail how it will implement the new labelling requirements.
“Every package containing the genetically-modified food shall bear at top of its principal display panel the words ‘GM’’,” the directive said.
“The labelling will basically help inform the consumer about the presence of GM content in packaged food products,” said BN Dixit, director of the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Legal Metrology department.
The directive will have the most impact on metro cities, which have the greatest influx of products derived and processed in countries such as the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, where the majority of the world’s GM crops are cultivated. Tier II and III cities, meanwhile, rely more on local produce and unpackaged foods that cater to a less developed market.
The move comes at a time when India is still debating the regulation of GM crops, and currently the only commercial crop allowed is Bt cotton.
However, the industry is not impressed by the general nature of the directive, with local sources calling for a withdrawal of the notification until the FSSAI finally releases its rules for its implementation.
For instance, the labelling notification does not specify the threshold limits nor does it talk of traceability or the liability aspects. And even environmental groups are concerned about the lack of clarity.
“Though the government’s intention to label GM products is good, there is lack of clarity on the implementation part of it. The notification is too sketchy and does not mean anything,” Rajesh Krishnan, a sustainable agriculture campaigner with GreenPeace told Business Line.
GreenPeace, along with other consumer agencies have been urging the government to make GM labelling rules more stringent for some time.
The Consumer Coordination Council (CCC), which represents around 75 consumer bodies, recently wrote a letter to food minister KV Thomas to urge him to set a minimum threshold that would strengthen the labelling initiative.
In it, the CCC pointed out that the one-line rule would not be of any use unless other measures were put in place, including a clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the agencies involved as well as liability provisions for violators.
Have your say: Have the authorities bungled this significant move by providing a half-baked directive, or do you feel that every little helps when it comes to giving consumers greater access to information? Make your point in the comments below.