Discussions on the labeling system for genetically modified food

By | 2017年7月3日
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The theme for this month’s newsletter is “Genetically Modified Food Labeling”- discussions on expanding the scope of this mandatory labeling has been held since April.

Background and overview


The first public discussion on “Genetically Modified Food Labeling” was held on April 26, 2017. A panel of experts is now discussing a GM labeling system that would enable to provide required information to the consumers, while ensuring feasibility for businesses, based on the verification results of food items currently subject to mandatory labeling and GM labeling systems in overseas countries.

Outline of the current labeling system


Let’s briefly review the current labeling system. Food items subject to mandatory labeling are 8 GM crops, soybeans including edamame beans and soybean sprouts, corn, potato, rapeseed, cottonseed, alfalfa, sugar beet, papaya (specified in Annex 16 to the Food Labeling Standard); 33 food items containing the aforementioned GM crops (specified in Annex 17 to the Food Labeling Standard); GM soybeans containing high-oleic acid and foods containing such GM soybeans (specified in Annex 18 to the Food Labeling Standard). Please refer to the table annexed to the Food Labeling Standard.

Mandatory and voluntary labeling schemes are as follows. For processed food products, the main ingredients are subject to mandatory labeling requirements – main ingredients are ingredients that are ranked within the top three constituents in terms of the ratio of weight they occupy, and the (respective) weight ratios of which account for 5% or more of the total. All water added during processing need not be declared as an ingredient. Labeling is only necessary when the GM crop is not one of the main ingredients (see above for the definition of main ingredients).

Whether or not the GM food is equivalent to its conventional counterpart with respect to composition, nutritional value, etc.?

  • Equivalent

    • GM ingredients segregated … Mandatory
      e.g.) Soybeans (genetically modified)
    • GM not segregated … Mandatory
      e.g.) Soybeans (genetically modified not segregated)
    • Non-GM ingredients segregated … Voluntary
    • DNA/Protein is undetectable … Voluntary
  • Not Equivalent (high-oleic acid GM soybeans and foods containing such GM soybeans) … Mandatory
    e.g.) Soybeans (high-oleic acid GM)

The product may be labeled as “Non-GM” if the identity preserved handling is properly performed, and even if a certain amount of “unintentional GM presence” (5% or less for soybeans and corn) has been confirmed.

When making a “GM Free” claim, all ingredients in the food must be treated under identity preserved handling. For example, if a “GM Free” claim is made on a product that contains potatoes and soybean oil, while soybean oil itself is not subject to the labeling requirements, it must be confirmed that soybeans in the oil have been treated under identity preserved handling, and labeled as “ingredients: potatoes (not genetically modified), soybean oil (not genetically modified)”. Also, it is prohibited to label food items not subject to the GM labeling requirement as “non-GM”.

Only the GM crops that have passed a “safety assessment” may be distributed within Japan. More than other products, it is especially required to confirm whether or not GM ingredients used in imported foods have passed the assessment.

Points discussed at the meeting


It’s been 15 years since the new GM labeling system was implemented in Japan. Meanwhile, techniques for GMO analysis, such as for DNA, may have been further improved and the actual situation concerning the distribution of GM products may have also changed due to the increase in GMO acreage. Thus, the first meeting reviewed the current situation.

Various documents were distributed at the meeting, but we have gathered a selection of quotes that plainly sum up the agenda as follows:

“While Japan’s soybean imports declined in 2015 compared to 1998 due mainly to an increase in the international price, the United States remained Japan’s largest supplier of soybeans and corn for both years. In the United States, the acreage share for GM crops (both soybeans and corn) has expanded from about 25 percent to more than 90 percent over 17 years.
As for rapeseed (canola), Canada was Japan’s largest supplier both in 1998 and 2015, and Canada’s acreage share for GM crops over 17 years has also expanded from less than 40 percent to 90 percent.”
“In Japan, a GM food item in which DNA changes are undetectable in the final product is not subject to mandatory labeling, as is the case with Korea and Australia. In the EU, GM information must be included on the food label, irrespective of the detectability of DNA modification.
The threshold level for the unintentional presence of GM material differs by countries: Japan 5 %, EU 0.9%. As for the USA, details are currently not available.”

DNA OR PROTEIN IS DETECTABLE DNA OR PROTEIN IS UNDETECTABLE THRESHOLDS FOR UNINTENTIONAL GM PRESENCE (TARGETED INGREDIENTS) SCOPE OF APPLICATION
JAPAN N/A 5% Ingredients that are ranked within the top three constituents in terms of the ratio of weight they occupy, and the weight ratios of which account for 5% or more of the total.
SOUTH KOREA N/A 3% All ingredients
AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND N/A 1% No requirements
EU 0.9% No requirements

Source: “Document 2 – Situation of the labeling system for GM food products”

Agendas and Schedule


We have listed potential agenda topics likely to be discussed below:

  • The GM labeling system is not well known among Japanese consumers.
  • Only “GM-Free” claims (voluntary labeling) are widely marketed.
  • A lack of information and understanding about the safety of GM foods.
  • Lowering the threshold for unintentional GM presence can significantly affect consumers.

Public hearings for consumers and businesses such as manufacturers and distributors to comment on the labeling system are scheduled to be held. The proposal is expected to be finalized at the end of the business year (Mar. 2018). We will regularly review information issued from these series of scheduled discussions on GM labeling, and hopefully that will give us an opportunity to guess what will be the future requirements of this system.

References:Discussions on the labeling system for genetically modified food (CAA)
http://www.caa.go.jp/policies/policy/food_labeling/other/genetically_modified_food.html
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