Regulations being drafted
Labelling of GM food products
By Feizal Samath
The government, after five years of haggling over stringent or liberal regulations controlling the import of genetically modified food, is now in the final stages of regulations that would allow GM food under tough labelling rules.

This is in line with a request from the business community for reasonable and practical regulations – through labelling -- and to allow consumers to make an “informed” choice. However that won’t deter environmental groups like the Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL) from continuing their campaign for a total ban on GM food imports – until the food is proved safe. Labelling will be compulsory under new rules.

T. Kandasamy, a member of the Health Ministry’s Food Advisory Committee (FAC) and chairman of the sectoral committee on Food and Agricultural Products at the Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) said Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has approved the regulations which are now being put into shape by the Legal Draftsman. It will then be gazetted and be valid. Parliamentary approval is not required, officials said.

Under the new rules, any importer seeking to import processed or raw material with GM content must apply to the Chief Food Authority (CFA) for a permit. If the applicant has an approved GM-free certificate from Europe or New Zealand (particularly in the case of milk) then Sri Lankan authorities will approve it as there are better testing facilities overseas.

“If not we will set up an expert committee of qualified people to examine the application and the testing will be done at Genetech which has this facility -- until we set up our own labs. We will check whether it is harmful or harmless. Such products will be labelled accordingly,” Kandasamy said.

He said if products are imported without permission (or proper approval) the culprits will be punished on detection. Such importers will be blacklisted. The new regulations are based on what is available in the EU.

EFL, in statement last month, called for an immediate recall of all products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and an immediate ban on the release of any new products containing GMO to the market. It called for the ban and the import until the issues regarding the GM food are fully investigated and the “pubic duly informed of the risks involved.”

The first time rules against GM food were brought in May 2001, the business community screamed foul and with the support of the international, mainly the US, was able to force the government to suspend the ban until further review. Under that 21 types of food included some Soya products, tomatoes, beat sugar and some yeasts were banned.

A spokesperson for Genetech, Sri Lanka’s main molecular Diagnostics Institute, said they have had facilities to test the presence of genetically modified elements in processed and raw food, for the past two years. “We look for the genes and the test is called polymerase chain reaction technology. We have done about five tests for exporters and given a certificate. We have also had workshops on GM testing,” he said adding that the tests cost between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000.

The tests are done according to international recognised standards. In Europe, only certificates from government labs are accepted. But since Genetech follows internationally laid down standards and processes – and in the absence of a government lab -- there is some form of acceptance.

The spokesperson said they have also independently carried out testing of some of the locally processed food like tomato or soya in the market for evidence of GMOs. “So far we have found no evidence in the samples tested,” he said.

Wake-up call for supermarkets
Health authorities are organising a workshop next month to address the many issues in supermarkets relating to the proper arrangement of products on shelves and expiry dates of products.

Some of the problems are food being stacked next to pesticides, foul smelling areas, storage of food under proper temperature conditions and labelling of items. “We will speak about hygiene and cleanliness. Expiry dates --- we will not allow stickers as stickers can be placed over expired dates,” one official explained.

Referring to new rules relating to the sale of bottled water, he said regulations are to be gazetted soon where the 300-plus bottled water manufacturers must register with the Health Department.

This is a compulsory requirement. The sample of the applicant’s product will be sent to the SLSI to check for chemical content and safety standards. Contrary to earlier plans, the SLS mark is not compulsory for bottled water other than registration. Six months time is to be given to manufacturers to register with the department.

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