The food regulator refuses to take those food products off the shelf, ignoring possible risks
Ten civil society organisations, under the banner of Indian For Safe Food, staged a protest outside the office of FSSAI. Credit: Banjot Kaur
Days after New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment came out with a report confirming the presence of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in food items available in Indian markets, the CEO of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), Pawan Agarwal has shirked the responsibility of fixing the issue saying that the government body can’t do anything about a report given by a ‘private organisation’.
Ten civil society organisations, under the banner of Indian For Safe Food (IFSF), staged a protest outside the office of FSSAI in New Delhi on August 7, pleading the authority to act and at least ban those 21 samples from sale in India which were tested positive for GM. Their delegation also met Agarwal. However, much to their dismay, the chairman refused to act on the findings. “When he said the findings were that of a private organisation, we requested him to test those samples in the government labs. However, he refused to do that, putting the onus upon us for producing evidence that GM food is not fit for human consumption. He ignored a large body of scientific work that suggests so,” said IFSF’s Ajay Etikala, one of the members of the delegation.
Incidentally, the WHO (in 2003) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in its guidelines (2008) mention toxicity, allergenicity (potential to cause allergy) and adverse nutritional effects as possible risks associated with GM food. The CSE study found presence of GM ingredients in 32 per cent (21/65) of processed food samples. Of these, 80 per cent of the products were imported. GM-positive imported food products were based on or used soy, corn and rapeseed (canola), which is often used to make cooking oil. GM-positive food samples that were manufactured domestically were refined cottonseed oil, which is made from cottonseed.
'Ban sale of GM-positive samples'
Amar Singh Azad, Kheti Virasat Mission’s Environmental Health Action Group director and a member of the delegation, said, “Consumers have every reason to worry about such GM foods. The genetic engineering process, the individual genes used as well as the chemicals that are used in conjunction with GM crops are all factors in making these foods hazardous for human consumption. GM food can potentially result in infertility, immune system disorders, and damage vital organs like liver, kidney, pancreas, lungs and brain. It can also cause allergies, gastrointestinal problems, and even cancerous growth, as per various studies available.”
Azad, who is a public health expert, added the way in which the FSSAI CEO was sounding ambiguous over the adverse health impacts of GM food, it appeared that the FSSAI may legalise the sale of GM food in India.
The delegation was upset with the fact that whatever concern they raised, the FSSAI CEO could only reply that the government was in the process of framing a law to regulate GM food. The FSSAI had been similarly ambiguous in its press statement issued as a response to CSE’s findings on July 26.
The delegation was also taken aback at the very attitude of FSSAI over illegality of GM food in India. “The FSSAI CEO told us that till a law is in place in this regard, they can’t act. While it is true that the government is in process of forming a law, the FSSAI has clearly said in an affidavit submitted in the Supreme Court in May 2017 that since regulation is yet to be framed, it follows that GM food is not permitted to be sold in the country. So why can’t they act against producers/importers of those 21 products which CSE tested positive for GM,” asked Jaya Iyer of KHANA, a consumer awareness group.
The FSSAI is proposing that only those foods, which contain GM ingredients more than five per cent by weight, will need to sport GM label and the rest need not to. The delegation also emphasised the fact that the limit of 5 per cent was too relaxed when in European Union the limit is 0.9 per cent and in Brazil, New Zealand and Australia it is up to 1 per cent. “Agarwal told us that he has representations from other civil society representations as well and they may make it more stringent,” said another delegation member.
In a symbolic move, the delegation also presented a bouquet of food that tested GM-positive, including Canola oil, an infant food product and a pancake syrup. Other organisations, which participated in the protests, included Jan Pahel, Kudrati Kheti Abhiyan, Jaivik Food, Greenpeace, Navdanya, and Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Environment.
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