Genetically Modified Foods

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Food labelling laws set in place in December 2001 require manufacturers to list ingredients that are genetically modified with a few exceptions. However, there is concern that some companies are not complying with the new regulations.

GM crops

Soy is one of the two major genetically modified crops grown in the United States, and Australian companies import lots of soy ingredients. Soy lecithin is added to many foods as an emulsifier (food additive 322). Most is imported from the US and is likely to be genetically modified, although it’s difficult to find any GM soy lecithin identified on food labels.

The only GM crop grown commercially in Australia is cotton. We don’t eat cotton, but cottonseed meal is fed to animals. Cottonseed oil goes into foods including margarines, mayonnaise, biscuits and snack foods. It is also processed for use in commercial frying. The next GM crop in Australia will probably be canola, but GM canola oil labels won’t have to tell you the product is genetically modified. The Australian regulations don’t require GM oils and sugars to be labelled, but that doesn’t reflect what most people want.

GM Surveys

Every survey has shown that most people want full labelling of GM foods and ingredients. A survey conducted in April 2002 (Taylor, Nelson and Sofres) found 92% of Australians wanted all GM ingredients labelled – including oils, sugars and any food from an animal fed genetically modified food. 68% of people surveyed said they would be less likely to buy a food if they knew it had been genetically modified.

In an earlier survey conducted by Biotechnology Australia, 60% of people said they would buy a GM product if it had been modified to make it healthier, while 51% said they would buy a GM product if it had been modified to make it taste better.

While there’s no evidence at this stage that GM foods help or harm our health, there may well be an environmental price to pay.

Fresh foods

No fresh foods sold in Australia are genetically modified, so there is no reason to be concerned about fruit and vegies. Some lot-fed beef and chickens may be consuming GM cottonseed meal in their feed in Australia. If that worries you, choose grass-fed meat (ask the butcher) and organic, free-range chickens and eggs. All organic produce is guaranteed GM-free.

True Food Guide

Greenpeace has recently produced a free booklet, which lists foods in three different categories:

Green – declared free of GM ingredients

Orange – manufacturers in the process of tracing all ingredients to ensure they are GM-free

Red – manufacturers who either did not respond to Greenpeace’s information request; those who didn’t know the origin of their ingredients (especially true for foods that contained eggs, milk or meat); and companies who use GM ingredients.

What to do

If you are concerned about consuming GM foods, there are a number of things you can do to avoid them. Look for foods that state they are ‘GM-free’. Buy products labelled as ‘organic’, as they are guaranteed GM-free. Look for foods labelled ‘Product of Australia’ then check the ingredients to make sure there is no cottonseed oil or unidentified oil labelled generically as ‘vegetable oil’ (but note that ‘Made in Australia’ can mean the product includes imported ingredients). When GM canola becomes available, if it is not labelled ‘GM-free’, use olive oil instead. Ask companies whether they use GM ingredients (most products have a consumer hotline phone number, or you can write). Pick up a copy of the free Greenpeace True Food Guide (download it from or order a copy from Greenpeace 1800 815 151 or GeneEthics Network 1300 133 868).