By Boyd Champness

AUSTRALIAN and New Zealand health ministers have called for the mandatory labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods.

But a “threshold” clause in their recommendations will mean some foods that contain GM ingredients will escape the regime.

Food industry and consumer groups cautiously welcomed the announcement, but remain dissatisfied that the issue of threshold levels has not been addressed.

Ministers had called on the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) to set threshold limits at which food producers must say whether a food contains genetically modified ingredients.

Ministers will vote on the ANZFAs final recommendations for threshold levels in October.

According to The Age newspaper, foods such as fruits, vegetables and cereals that are genetically modified must be labelled under the agreement.

However, it leaves open the labelling of by-products such as oils and sugars made from GM foods and foods made from these ingredients.

Foods found to contain only minute amounts of GM ingredients, or by-products, might not have to be labelled, the newspaper said.

During the talks, some ministers criticised the ANZFA for not developing stricter guidelines.

The ANZFA had been given two months to examine threshold levels for foods and refined substances.

It was also asked to consider what labelling methods should be used, ways to test foods for compliance, a possible industry code of practice and how to get the message across to the public.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council, while maintaining its commitment for meaningful compulsory labelling for consumers, is not happy about the developments.

AFGC executive director Mitch Hooke told the Stock and Land that a system that allows foods with GM ingredients to go unlabelled would only “mislead and confuse consumers and add considerable recurrent costs for industry and ultimately consumers”.

“Consumers will not have the information necessary to differentiate products if the great majority of products on supermarket shelves carry the label might contain approved GM ingredients without additional information,” he said.

AFGC scientific and technical director, Dr Geoffrey Annison, told The Age he hopes the ANZFA and health ministers follow the European Union – which is considering a threshold of 2% – when making their final decisions in October.

He also warned that too much regulation could conflict with Australias obligations under the World Trade Organisation.

The GeneEthics Network described the health ministers decision as a “betrayal” of consumers, while acknowledging it to be a “good start”.

Network director Bob Phelps criticised the ANZFA in the Stock and Land for failing to provide health ministers with a mandatory, full labelling option for all foods produced using gene technology.

In the absence of complete and honest labelling, Mr Phelps believes there should be an immediate ban on the 20 GM crops permitted as food ingredients in Australia, but which have not undergone safety assessments in this country.

“Clear labelling rules should have been settled long before genetically-engineered foods began arriving on our tables, but industry stalled,” he told the newspaper.