India’s affluent middle-class could be munching through imported genetically modified (GM) food despite a ban, mainly because a written undertaking from importers is enough to pass these off as non-GM food.
A consignment of Pepsico-owned Doritos brand of premium chips was detained in Mumbai by the directorate-general of foreign trade (DGFT) in January, something that has come to light after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex regulatory body governing GM policies, made this public.
The GEAC functions under the Environment Ministry.
Doritos Chips, generally sold by upscale stores, was found to contain two varieties of GM corn by Greenpeace India at Hamburg’s Genescan Lab last May during a random test of samples collected from south Delhi. A packet sells for anything between Rs 250-Rs300.
The World Health Organisation defines GM food as those developed from “genetically modified organisms (GMOs)… in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”.
The consignment was detained on suspicion of containing GM food at Mumbai’s Nhava Sheva Port and was later released by the GEAC after a written undertaking from the importer, M/S K.K. Enterprises, “subject to the condition that if it is later found to contain genetically modified material, the importer is liable for prosecution under the law”.
Asked if an undertaking was enough, Supreme Court observer in the GEAC, P.M. Bhargava, said: “If you ask a thief if he has stolen anything, will he admit it? I am sure GM foods are making their way into India because there is hardly any real regulatory mechanism.”
Taiwan, where the chips were manufactured, allows a “threshold of 0.5 per cent of GM products”, which means, any product that contains no more than 0.5 per cent of GM ingredients will be labelled non-GM.
Taiwan, therefore, will not label Dorito Chips as GM food. Experts say India’s permissible limit of 0.01, lowest in the world, but anything can slip through as the country does not have any labelling laws.
The GEAC, while freeing the consignment, ordered that a few random samples be kept for testing “if necessary”, according to information posted on its website “This could mean that testing of the samples may not be mandatory,” a Greenpeace spokesperson said.
However, GEAC member Rajini Warrier, in an email response to HT, omitted the words “if necessary”. “The customs officials have been advised to retain two packets of each flavour for verification by an appropriate laboratory,” she stated.
Bhargava said he was not sure when these will be tested and where.