Indian consumers will soon have the privilege of knowing whether their food contains genetically modified (gm) ingredients. Sources at the Union ministry of health and family welfare recently said that the current rules under the relevant legislation would be amended to put the new proposals into force.
Earlier, the Central Committee for Food Standards (ccfs) also recommended the labelling norm, based on a report by the Indian Council of Medical Research (icmr). The permissible limit of gm ingredients in food, as proposed by icmr, is slightly slacker than European Union (eu) norms. eu fixes the permissible limit at 0.9 per cent, the most stringent in the world, while icmr has fixed it at 1 per cent.
icmr says labels on gm foods should disclose the necessary information relating to the origin of the transgene and the processes involved. The norms for labelling will be revised when more advanced techniques of detection become available.
Though India plans to impose gm labelling norms, the international Codex Committee on Food Labelling is yet to include mandatory labelling for gm foods, owing to us pressure. Thus if India wishes to seek mandatory labelling of gm foods it runs the risk of being challenged at the World Trade Organization.
The labelling of gm foods in India is important since it is importing considerable amount of corn and soyabean, says T Ramannaiah, director, department of biotechnology . India had imported two million tonnes of soya oil in the year 2004-05. In addition, the use of domestic gm cotton oil in making vegetable oil is increasing.
When quantitative restrictions were removed in April 2001, India was flooded with food imports, making proper regulations for gm foods imperative. "Though India will soon impose a strong labelling regime, it doesn't have the necessary infrastructure to conduct the required testing," says Anju Sangwan, a researcher with the food safety division in a New Delhi-based organisation. She adds that gm contamination is suspected in imported products like soybean oil, ketchup and potato chips. Legally the import of gm foods is still not allowed in India but due to lack of proper testing facilities, such foods escape scrutiny easily.
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