SCMP Saturday, August 19, 2000


Hard to stomach

Only the most dewy-eyed optimist would expect major food chains to serve food that is absolutely free from the "taint" of genetically modified ingredients. So it comes as no great shock to learn that three of Hong Kong's most popular fast food outlets sell meals which include doctored bread and potatoes. In fact, it has become nearly impossible to find soybeans grown for the food industry which have not been engineered.

It is unfortunate, but nevertheless a fact, that the selection of convenience foods free of GM products gets narrower by the year. Local consumers who are concerned about possible health hazards have to shop, and dine out, selectively. They also have to pay more, which means some consumers who would prefer to eat only natural products cannot afford to do so. The move towards organic produce and food labelling is picking up momentum, but at a snail's pace.

People pay lip service to the campaign waged by Greenpeace and other environmental groups, but when it comes to adopting a truly GM-free diet there is less commitment. Working families without a servant at home to cook traditional dishes depend heavily on ready-made meals. And where is the child, in Hong Kong or anywhere, who prefers home-cooked fare to junk food?

Even the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is ambivalent about labelling. Officials are considering a system balanced between tougher European regulations and the more relaxed US approach. But that would be a fudge and, as usual, the concern seems to focus as much on protecting industry from the cost of extensive labelling as on enhancing the consumer's right to know.

European rules call for labelling any produce with more than one per cent GM content. The US only requires labelling if the taste and nutritional content has been altered by the addition of GM products.

The scientific world cannot agree on the merits or hazards of these foods, so it is hard for ordinary people to make informed judgments. But they are entitled to know what they are eating, and the authorities should do everything possible to see that the choice exists.