GM animal feed: labelling is key
Supermarkets to sell GM fed meat
The recent announcements by British supermarkets that they will no longer attempt to ensure that their poultry and eggs come from animals fed a non-GM diet have been dubbed a “disaster for consumer choice”.
But on this crucial issue Ethical Consumer believes that over the past decade both supermarkets and the regulatory system have made a mockery of consumer choice. Consistent demands that products from GM-fed animals are labelled as such have been flatly ignored.
A Food Standards Agency opinion poll published this January found that two thirds of consumers wanted such products labelled and that they considered they had a “right to know”. Unsurprisingly given the absence of point-of-sale information, the same study also found that there was “typically no awareness of the use of GM animal feed or GMOs used in food production”.
Supply chain issues
The labelling issue goes beyond consumer choice and straight to the heart of the problem: the viability of segregated supply chains and the resulting availability of non-GM feed supplies. Without labelling, market mechanisms which allow segregation to make economic sense are dysfunctional.
Although until recently Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsburys and the Co-operative instructed their supplying farmers to only use non-GM poultry feed, they also forced farmers to absorb the increasing price differential. No attempts have apparently been made to ensure that farmers will in turn receive a premium for non-GM animal products.
Under normal market conditions, such a premium would only occur through the introduction of labelling. It is no surprise that the situation was untenable.
Whilst it may be true, as supermarkets claim, that supplies of guaranteed non-GM animal feed are increasingly hard to come by, it is also clear that they need to accept some responsibility for this.
Europeans take the lead
Germany, France and Austria have been far more pro-active on the issue of GM labelling of animal products than Britain, where the coalition government has explicitly declared itself to be pro-GM. But that doesn't prevent British supermarkets taking action independently of the State and in accordance with their customers' wishes. The French supermarket Carrefour introduced a "free from GM feed" label in 2010.
Stronger demand for non-GM feed in other European countries, no doubt as a result of labels which enable consumer choice, means that they are the favoured destinations for non-GM feed imports from South America. If British retailers don't act to allow consumer demand to be translated into market demand, we will find ourselves with less and less of the available non-GM supply coming to the UK and the situation will further deteriorate.
It is likely that in the coming months and years, the health impacts of genetically modified crops and products from animals fed genetically modified feed will come under increasing scrutiny. Last year a study by the French scientist Dr Gilles-Eric Séralini found that rats fed Monsanto's GM maize and exposed to the accompanying pesticide Roundup were more likely to develop a range of health defects than control groups.
If, in contrast to current European and UK government assurances, it transpires that there are in fact negative health implications of consuming products derived from GM-fed animals, the refusal of supermarkets to label such products, or indeed those that are “GM feed free”, will be judged harshly by future generations.
You can read more on supermarkets and GM in our special report on the food industry.
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