Why are Australian babies being fed genetically modified food without their parents realising it?

Channel Seven’s Sunday Night program on the weekend followed up work undertaken by Greenpeace that showed S-26 Soy baby formula, one of the most popular brands of infant formula, had small levels of genetically modified crops present. Seven paid for its own testing, adding to the two sets of tests Greenpeace paid to be conducted, that showed levels of GM food in S-26. The Sunday Telegraph also ran a story, and this week several mothers protested in Coles and Woolworths supermarkets, demanding the product be removed from shelves until it was labeled so that parents knew it contained GM food.

This issue isn’t so much about the safety of GM food, but rather about consumers’ right to know that food has been genetically modified, particularly if they’re feeding it to their children.

The story goes back to 2000, when the then-Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council, which was primarily federal, state, territory and New Zealand health ministers, first considered imposing labelling requirements relating to GM food. The original council proposal, developed two years before, had been for no labelling of genetically modified food if the food was “substantially equivalent” to non-modified varieties, which meant in practice virtually nothing would be labelled. However, Craig Knowles of NSW, Dean Brown of South Australia and the ACT’s Michael Moore drove a shift in position and in 2000 was set to consider requiring all GM food to be labelled.

At that point John Howard intervened, writing to premiers, chief ministers and the New Zealand Prime Minister to demand that the council back down from its proposed approach. He did so, according to a former council member, at the behest of the Australian food industry, which had lobbied hard against being forced to label all GM foods. The loudest voice was from the then-head of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, Mitch Hooke. Hooke, who has long been close to the Coalition — he became one of the most enthusiastic spruikers of Workchoices, and recently led the Minerals Council’s effort to remove the Rudd government — claimed at the time that labelling of all GM foods was “nonsense labelling … almost terrorist labelling” and that it would inflict massive costs on the food industry.

Howard demanded that there be no labelling for food containing GM products of less than 1%.  The food industry at the time insisted that it couldn’t be sure about the sourcing of its products, and that unintended contamination of non-GM food with GM food might occur either in production or in transport. Under pressure from Howard, the council decided in July 2000 on a set of labelling requirements that did impose a strong labelling regime, but crucially exempted products that had the unintended presence of GM food, up to 1%, which Hooke had been calling for.

That’s why Wyeth, which manufactures S-26 Soy, is not required to tell parents that the product they’re giving their kids may contain GM food. There’s no suggestion the company, which is owned by Big Pharma heavyweight Pfizer, is not complying with Australia’s GM labelling requirements.

The problem with the “unintended” exemption is that there has been an awful lot of unintended GM contamination.  According to Greenpeace, S-26 has before this year been found to have been contaminated with GM products on seven occasions between 1998 and 2001, including once in Australia and two times each in China and Hong Kong.  In Hong Kong in March 2000, S-26 was found to contain 10% GM contamination. In response, Wyeth was reported to have promised it would phase out GM products in its formula immediately. The product then tested positive again a year later.

Pfizer told Crikey that until this week, there had been no examples of GM contamination being found after it put in place a new testing and supply chain process in 2001. That, however, may reflect the fact that Greenpeace conducted no tests before 2010.

Another GM company, Novartis, was caught out by Greenpeace at the same time — in 2000, the company promised to remove all GM traces from its products worldwide but a year later, in the Philippines, the NGO tested Gerber baby food products and found between 34%-66% GM materials.

In its response to the Sunday Night program, Pfizer pointed to the “unintentional” exemption. But this isn’t just serial bad luck for food companies that keep having their non-GM supplies contaminated by GM foods. The entire rationale for the “unintended” exemption is undermined by the food industry’s own oft-expressed view that it is impossible to ensure a GM-free supply chain. As one industry association has put it, “100% purity is impossible in the production of food, feed and seed. Agricultural commodities inevitably become inter-mixed to a small extent”. Sourcing plays an important role in how much “inter-mixing” goes on.

Wyeth, for example, has according to Greenpeace, told customers that it sources S-26 from the United States and Brazil. And any soy sourced in the United States will almost certainly be contaminated with GM products, which accounted for nearly 70% of the soybean crop in the US as early as 2001 and now accounts for more than 90% of the US crop (just 2% of the US soybean and corn crop is certified as GM-free and nearly all of it goes to Japan).  And at least two-thirds of the Brazilian soy crop is now GM.

ABARE has said “it is difficult to ensure there is no unintended presence of GM material in non-GM products. This unintended presence can arise through cross-pollination in the field or through commingling in the grain handling and storage system”.

The idea of “unintended” GM presence as the basis for an exemption from labeling now seems meaningless. The food industry has said before it will switch to GM-free sources, and been unable to do so. According to many industry participants, it is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee the absence of GM foods. The presence of GM products may be “unintentional” but appears to be impossible to avoid.

A spokesperson for Pfizer told Crikey this morning that: “Wyeth intentionally seeks and verifies that the ingredients we use are non-GMO sourced. Our intent is not to use GM ingredients. It is true that sometimes traces of GMO are found when sourcing non-GMO ingredients despite all rigorous processes that ingredient suppliers put in place. It is also important to recognise that sometimes a trace may be found and sometimes it is not. We are committed to using non-GMO ingredients as outlined in our policy of 2001.”

“We continue to evaluate the feedback from our customers and are willing to consider changes to these policies that are in accordance with Australian regulations.”

An accurate labelling system would recognise that reality and drop an exemption that is now meaningless. At least, then, Australian parents will be able to make informed choices about what they feed their children.