This webpage was produced as an assignment for an undergraduate course at Davidson College.

Debate and Policies on Labeling GM Foods


Labeling Policies by Country (Western World)

Permission granted by International Otter Survival Fund.

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Before 1996, GM foods were not a very big deal because they were still a new technology.  Today, there is a lot of international debate over GM foods.  Most of the controversy surrounds the differing labeling policies from place to place.  This section intends to outline what these polices are (as recently as possible), how each country arrived at its current policy, and why the policies differ among nations (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).  The focus is the United States and its main trading partners.



United States

U.S. policy focuses more on the safety of the final product than the process used to make it.  In 1992, the Department of Health issued a statement that said GM food did not need to be labeled if the characteristics of the GM food were the same as the food in its non-GM form (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).  In 1997, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) came out with a draft of regulations about the organic standard in the nation.  A major outcry surrounded the fact that GM foods were included as organic.  In March 2000, a revised draft was circulated that did not include GM foods (Bosco, 2000).  A “Guidance for Industry” was issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January of 2001.  This reiterated that the only GM foods that required labels were those that differed from their natural counterparts.  It also stated that companies needed to inform the FDA four months in advance before they could put a GM food on the market.  During these four months, a “scientific description of the product” is posted on the internet for review (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).  Firms can choose whether or not they would like to label their GM food products (Rousu and Huffman, 2001; Ahmed, 2002; Lash, 2001).  Those that do must follow certain FDA guidelines: labels cannot contain the words “genetically modified” as consumer studies show this phrase incorrectly leads buyers to believe the food has different characteristics than the natural form.  “The FDA prefers that foods be labeled as ‘genetically engineered’ or ‘made through biotechnology’ instead” (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).



Countries of Europe

The most controversy has taken place in Europe.  The European Union (EU) sets minimum standards for countries in the EU, but individual countries may place stricter policies if they see fit.  Since April 1998, the EU has had a de facto moratorium on the approval of any new GM foods for use within the EU.  The Novel Foods Regulation in 1997 made labeling of GM foods mandatory.  With this regulation, any GM foods on the market had pass two requirements: 1) that it had been shown not to harm the health of humans, and 2) that it was labeled if GM content was at a detectable level.  The Novel Foods Regulation did have downfalls, however.  It did not set a minimum percentage for a detectable level of GM content, and it “left several exemptions to labeling” (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).  In January 2000, the Commission of the Council modified the Regulation and stated GM foods must be labeled “genetically modified” if at least 1% of GM material was detectable.  The moratorium on new approvals was still in place as of February 2001, and Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg have stated they would not favor the lifting of the ban on new GM products until more stringent laws are passed (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).  


In December 2002, the EU drafted a law to extend labeling policy to foods containing soya or maize oil (Anonymous, 2002; Independent Press Association, 2003).  These products did not have to be labeled because they do not contain GM DNA (Independent Press Association, 2003).  The products would be labeled ‘This product contains genetically modified organisms’ or ‘is produced from genetically modified (organism).’ (Anonymous, 2002).  To avoid a trade war with the U.S., the ban on GM food approvals was lifted on July 2, 2003, but strict labeling policies are still in place, and new biotech crops are not allowed.  Soya and maize oil products fall under the new labeling regulations, even though they did not before.  They will be labeled as proposed in the draft of December 2002, but the GM content requirement will be lowered just to 0.9%, not 0.5% as proposed.  The majority of Europeans do not want GM food, and almost all want the option of choosing to eat it (Independent Press Association, 2003).  As recently as January 2004, the EU has “taken one more step towards removing a five-year unofficial ban on new biotech crops and products” (Smith, 2004).  A proposal to import GM sweetcorn was executively backed, and EU ministers have until April 2004 to authorize use of the corn which is produced by a Swiss company.  This corn would not be allowed for planting, but just for eating from a can.  More GM approval applications are expected, but diplomats will not acknowledge a complete lifting of the GM ban until seed GMOs are approved for planting in the EU (Smith, 2004).   


Norway and Sweden are not members of the EU, and they require labeling on all GM food (Ahmed, 2002).




As of September 2001, Canada only required labeling for GM foods that had potential “”health or safety issues” (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).  A voluntary labeling policy is being considered, and the Canadian people believe the policy could be implemented soon.  The Canadian Food Inspection Agency supports the passing of a uniform standard for labeling GM foods on an international level (Rousu and Huffman, 2001).



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