During 1997, the Institute of Grocery Distribution was one of many organisations that produced information for consumers on GM food. The text below is an HTML facsimile of one of their 1998 factsheets. Please note that it is now out-of-date, and has been included here purely for historical interest.
What is genetic modification?
This century, developments in plant breeding and food production have significantly changed the food we eat, delivering numerous benefits. These include improved nutrition, choice and convenience.
Genetic modification is one of a range of new technologies collectively known as modern biotechnology. It is beginning to be used in food production, enabling the identification and modification or transfer of selected individual genes.
Genes are like the instructions in a recipe book, determining the individual traits of plants and animals. Each plant or animal has tens of thousands of genes. Through genetic modification it is possible to select a gene controlling a specific, desired trait. This can either be altered or transferred from one organism to another to achieve the desired changes. For example, a gene which makes a plant resistant to a particular pest can be selected and transferred to a second plant, making this second plant also resistant to the pest.
How is genetic modification being used now?
In 1996, three genetically modified foods were introduced into the UK for the first time. These were:
Tomato purée made from tomatoes genetically modified to soften more slowly during ripening. These tomatoes are firmer than conventional tomatoes when harvested, therefore they are less susceptible to damage during harvest and transportation from field to factory. When processed they produce a thicker purée without needing the high processing temperatures which can affect the product's colour, flavour and cost. The new purée is therefore cheaper than standard purées.
Soya from plants genetically modified to be tolerant to a universal weed killer. This means that a single weed killer can be used for all weeds, rather than different weed killers applied at different times, thus reducing the number of applications. Soya is an important ingredient in food and animal feed because it is rich in protein and has a high oil content. It is used in over 60% of foods such as bakery products, margarines and spreads, baby and dietetic foods and animal feed. Most soya included in food products in the UK comes from the US. Each year many millions of acres of soya crops are harvested. Due to this enormous volume, the US mixes together genetically modified and conventional soya crops during harvest. In 1997, the US soya harvest contained about 15% genetically modified soya, and the 1998 harvest is expected to be about 30% genetically modified.
Maize from plants genetically modified to be resistant to the major maize pest, leading to a decrease in the use of pesticides and an increase in yield. This particular variety of maize is used in animal feed and processed food ingredients such as starch, glucose and oil. These are used widely in brewing, bakery products, salad dressing, snack foods and margarine.
Both genetically modified soya and maize crops provide potential environmental benefits by reducing the amount of chemicals used in weed or pest control.
Are genetically modified foods safe to eat?
All genetically modified products introduced into the UK (purée made from genetically modified tomatoes and processed products and ingredients from genetically modified soya and maize) have been approved for safety following extensive assessment by the UK and the European regulatory authorities. All genetically modified products are covered within the EU Novel Foods Regulations adopted by the European Commission in May 1997.
Are there any risks?
No food, whether conventional or genetically modified, can be proven to be 100% safe. Approval for new genetically modified food products will not be given unless there is satisfactory evidence about their safety. However, concerns have been raised about potential unforeseen consequences of the process, for example the long term impact on the environment or the food chain. The EU has published proposals for long-term monitoring of crops grown commercially.
Are genetically modified foods labelled?
The EU Novel Foods Regulation also makes provision for labelling genetically modified foods. Genetically modified foods must be labelled if they are no longer the same as an existing food, if they contain genes transferred from food subject to dietary or ethical restrictions, or if they contain unprocessed genetically modified organisms.
Food ingredients made from genetically modified soya or maize are legally required to be labelled (from 1st September 1998) if they contain genetically modified material (DNA) or modified protein.
Although by law there is no current requirement to label puree made from genetically modified tomatoes, Sainsbury's and Safeway, who sell the product, have voluntarily labelled it: 'produced using genetically modified tomatoes'.
UK food retailers and industry are committed to providing informative labelling to maintain consumer choice. Before labelling was legally required, genetically modified soya and maize ingredients were being labelled on a voluntary basis. Supplies of conventional soya that have not been mixed with conventional varieties have been sourced in some instances to maintain consumer choice. Industry is maintaining an open dialogue with consumers through in-store information, and listss of soya-free products are available from most retailers.
How will genetic modification be used in the future?
Genetically modified products currently being developed include fruit, vegetables, cereals and micro-organisms such as yeasts used in beer making. Other future potential applications of genetic modification could result in:
For more information
Other fact sheets available from the Institute of Grocery Distribution are:
For further information, contact your retailer's or manufacturer's customer care department or contact:
Food and Drink Federation, PO Box 6927, London, E3 3NZ.
MAFF Helpline, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, Whitehall Place, London, SW1A 2HH.
The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG has produced a statement entitled 'Genetically modified plants for food use' which is available on receipt of an SAE.
© Institute of Grocery Distribution, 1998.