A study by the India, New Delhi-based research and advocacy body, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has exposed what looks like a large-scale illegal presence and sale of genetically modified (GM) processed foods in the country.
Without the approval of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), production, sale and import of these foods is banned in India.
CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), which conducted the study, tested 65 food products available in Indian markets – 32 per cent of these were found to be GM-positive. These food products were purchased randomly from retail outlets in Delhi-NCR, Punjab and Gujarat. Both imported (35) and domestically produced (30) samples were tested – imported samples fared worse: 80 per cent of the products which were found to be GM-positive, were imported.
The products which were found to be GM-positive include infant food, edible oil and packaged food snacks. Most of these are said to be imported from the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand, and the UAE. These products were produced from or contain soya, cotton seed, corn or rapeseed (canola), which are known GM crops of the world.
Releasing the results of the study here today, CSE director general Sunita Narain said: “Our government says it has not allowed the import of GM food products. Then how is this happening? We have found that laws are not the problem – the regulatory agencies are.”
Adding to this, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, said: “We had been hearing about the presence of illegal GM food in India, and decided to do a reality check by testing processed foods. We were shocked to know the scale in which GM foods have penetrated the Indian market. The regulatory authorities are to blame here – the FSSAI has not allowed any GM food on paper but has failed to curb its illegal sales.”
What is GM? Why should we worry?
“GM – genetically modified – products, especially food, raise a crucial question of safety: a question of how safe they are. The jury is still out on this,” says Narain. This is because GM food involves taking genes (DNA) from different organisms and inserting them in food crops. There is a concern that this ‘foreign’ DNA can lead to risks such as toxicity, allergic reactions, and nutritional and unintended impacts.
Most countries in the world, including India, have decided to take a ‘precautionary’ approach to GM food. They have set stringent regulations for approval and labelling. The EU, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and South Korea have made it mandatory to label GM food so that consumers have a choice about what they are eating.
What did the CSE study find?
GM food contains foreign promoter and terminator genes. More than 90 per cent of GM crops in the market contain promoter genes like 35S promoter of cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) and FMV promoter of figwort mosaic virus, and NOS terminator of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Using quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR), CSE’s lab screened the food products to ascertain if they had a combination 35S promoter, NOS terminator and FMV promoter.
The key findings of the study are:
- 32 per cent (21 out of 65) of the food product samples tested were GM-positive. About 80 per cent (16 out of 21) of those which tested positive were imported. These were made of or used soy, corn and rapeseed and were imported from Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand, the UAE, and the US.
- 56 per cent (9/16) of oil samples, 25 per cent (10/39) of packaged food samples and 25 per cent (2/8) of infant food samples were GM-positive.
- The CSE lab also tested five samples of cottonseed oil from India – all tested positive. This is because BT-cotton is the single GM crop that has been allowed for cultivation in the country. Says Bhushan: “But this should worry us. Firstly, no permission has been given for the use of GM cottonseed oil for human consumption. Secondly, cottonseed oil is also mixed in other edible oils, particularly vanaspati, which means we are consuming it without knowing.”
- GM contamination was found in infant food, sold for children with medical ailments, including allergies. Two products by Abbott Laboratories, the American healthcare company, were found to be GM-positive — one was for lactose-intolerant infants and the other was a hypoallergenic (for minimising the possibility of an allergic reaction). Neither product has any label warning parents that this food has GM ingredients.
- Other than edible oil, no processed food sample manufactured in India was found
- 65 per cent (13/20) GM-positive samples did not mention anything about GM on their labels. These include the following:
- Canola oil brands (‘Farrell’ imported from UAE by Jindal Retails (India) Pvt Ltd; ‘Hudson’ from UAE, marketed by Dalmia Continental Pvt Ltd; ‘Jivo’ imported from Canada by Jivo Wellness Pvt Ltd); and cottonseed oil brands from India (‘Ankur’, ‘Ginni’, ‘Tirupati’ and ‘Vimal’).
- Packaged foods like ‘Pancake syrup original’ and ‘Popcorn Hot N’ Spicy’ — both products of American Garden – imported in India by Bajoria Foods Pvt Ltd; ‘Froot Loops’ — a sweetened multigrain cereal from Kellogg’s imported by Newage Gourmet Foods; and ‘Crispy corn snacks’ from Bugles – distributed by General Mills Inc, USA and imported by Newage Gourmet Foods.
- Three products made false claims suggesting that no GM ingredient is used. These were ‘Candrop’ Canola oil from Canada imported by Century Edible Cooking Oils Pvt Ltd; ‘Mori-nu silken tofu’ from the US, imported by Olive Tree Trading Pvt Ltd; and ‘PromPlus sweet whole kernel corn’ from Thailand imported by Guru Kirpa Impex.
- Four products that carried labels of genetic engineering technology were ‘Butter and Garlic Croutons’ from Mrs Cubbison’s; ‘Corn puffs’ by Trix – distributed by General Mills Sales Inc, USA; ‘Original syrup’ from Aunt Jemima – distributed by Quaker Oats in the US; and ‘Dark corn syrup’ from Karo, US. All four products were imported by Newage Gourmet Foods.
What do the laws say?
- The Environment Protection Act (EPA) strictly prohibits import, export, transport, manufacture, process, use or sale of any genetically engineered organisms except with the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
- The 2006 Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) prohibits import, manufacture, use or sale of GM food without FSSAI’s approval.
- The Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules 2011 mandate that GM must be declared on the food package.
- The Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act 1992 says that GM food cannot be imported without the permission of GEAC.
- Anyone who imports, manufactures, uses or sells GM food, is liable to be prosecuted under the above Acts.
The FSSAI has now issued a draft notification on labelling, which includes GM food. Says Amit Khurana, programme director, food safety and toxins, CSE: “The FSSAI notification says that any food that has 5 per cent or more GM ingredients, shall be labelled, provided this GM ingredient constitutes the top three ingredients in terms of percentage in the product. The exemption limit of 5 per cent is very relaxed compared to other countries such as the EU, Australia and Brazil, which have limits at or below 1 per cent.”
“But there is a catch,” he adds. “It is very difficult for government to quantify the GM content in all foods: the tests are prohibitively expensive and technically cumbersome. This means that the regulatory agency is asking companies to ‘self-declare’ and say that they are within the 5 per cent limit and therefore, need not carry the label of GM.”
Says Bhushan: “The draft GM labelling regulations shows the double standard of FSSAI. On one hand, FSSAI has set stringent conditions for labelling organic food, which is a safe and healthy. At the same time, it is proposing to give a huge exemption for labelling GM food, safety of which has been a matter of concern.”
What does CSE recommend?
- The FSSAI must identify all GM products being sold in the market and prosecute companies and traders responsible.
- It must set up a safety assessment system for approval of both domestic and imported GM foods.
- The limit for GM labelling exemption should be set at 1 per cent GM DNA and not on the basis of weight of ingredients. Only unintentional contamination should be exempted.
- The FSSAI should adopt qualitative screening (such as through quantitative polymerase chain reaction – qPCR) as an enforcement tool and the onus of proving unintentional presence should be on the food manufacturer. It must set up laboratories to screen GM foods for effective monitoring.
- A symbol-based label such as “GM” should be displayed on the front of packs which carry GM food — just like the green “tick” along with the words “Jaivik Bharat” proposed for organic food.
Says Narain: “In 2008 (updated in 2012), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had issued guidelines for determining safety of such food – it cautioned that ‘there is a possibility of introducing unintended changes, along with intended changes, which may in turn have an impact on the nutritional status or health of the consumer.’ Keeping this in mind, India should adopt a health-based precautionary principle approach to GM food regulation and labelling.”