Understanding labelling of GMOs in food: the current situation of French and European legislation

Following the many food scandals that have affected France and other European countries, an increasing number of consumers are concerned about the food on their plates. The possible presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is one of these concerns. But it isn’t always easy for consumers to follow and understand what lies behind the labels, if and when they exist. Although the European Union has effectively ruled on the obligation to inform consumers if the product contains GMOs, the impact of this regulation is considerably reduced by the number of exceptions that exist. Here are some explanations to help people to gain a better understanding of how GMOs are considered in food and help them to navigate between obligations and exceptions.

Food containing GMOs should be labelled...

Food products that contain GMOs should state so on the label. This is European legislation, and is common to all Member States.
There is however a certain tolerance included in this regulation: in the case of “adventitious or technically unavoidable” presence of below 0.9% per ingredient, it is not compulsory to label the product. In other words, the minute there is a deliberate presence of a GMO in a food product, it should be labelled, irrespective of the level of GMO present. Likewise, the minute a product contains over 0.9% per ingredient, it must be labelled, even if the producer has done his/her best to avoid this contamination.

Within the European Union, few products mention the presence of GMOs. The European Commission has listed only about thirty references, mainly imported from the USA and Asia. These products are not widely present in supermarkets, as there is a general fear that consumers refusal of them would lead to their being eliminated from the supermarket’s referenced products.

… but there are exceptions

In spite of the compulsory labelling, there are many exceptions that greatly reduce consumers’ possibilities of informed choice of food. Industrial kitchens (school and company canteens…) are in no way obliged to indicate whether GMOs have been used in preparing the dishes. In France there is a possibility for managers to stipulate a certain number of criteria in their procurement process, such as ‘organic produce’ or quality labels (AOC, Label Rouge…) as well as ‘GMO-free’ labelling, certified GMO-free-fed animals or short circuit procurement… It is therefore possible for parents, elected representatives and those eating in canteens to take up this question, and overcome the gaps in European legislation! It is, however necessary to put what regulations consider as GMOs into perspective. There are several different techniques that produce genetic modification. [1], but only one of these, transgenesis, effectively falls into the regulatory field of application of European legislation on GMOs. This is therefore the only one that is covered by the obligation to label GMOs. Citizens and consumers thus have no comeback on GMOs produced by other techniques that modify the genome (such as mutagenesis), and that may nevertheless end up on our plates.
Another major exception is on animal produce (eggs, milk, cheese, meat). Because even if the animals were fed on GMO feed for their entire lives, there is no obligation to label this. And agribusiness has leaped into this gap in transparency: nowadays an estimated 70% of all animal feed contains GMOs.

European regulation on labelling GMOs is therefore more than incomplete and flawed, and does not enable consumers to make a real informed choice. Nevertheless there is a request for transparency on GMOS, particularly in the area of animal feed; the ‘GMO-free’ label is an attempt to respond to this concern. The EU has left it up to Member States to enact national legislation that define what is included in the ‘GMO-free’ label. Germany, Austria, and France have legislation of this kind. But since 2011, the EU has been considering introducing European harmonisation on this subject, with a ‘GMO-free’ label common to all the Member States. They have launched a wide consultation on this subject [2]. Given the realities of the European legislative process, this labelling will not be introduced for several years. In the meanwhile, national labelling remains relevant.

French ‘GMO-free’

Since July 2012 [3], French producers can showcase their produce by using the ‘GMO-free’ label if their fruit and vegetables have not been genetically modified, or the animals not been fed on GMO feed.
There are several different claims and appraoches. It is thus possible to find labels that state ‘GMO-free<IMG//> http://www.infogm.org/spip.php?article5383]]. To get the information, you have to consult the specifications for each product, and this isn’t easy to do when you are doing your shopping…

So it isn’t easy for people who want to avoid eating GMOs. Consumers need to juggle between various labels to buy the kind of food they want. Yet this information is essential because it is also through consumption that citizens can ensure their voices are heard and support the kind of agriculture that they want, both now and in the future. Patchy or lack of labelling is something that denies consumers their right to choose.

[1Corededem sheet, Les citoyens sous le feu des entreprises de biotechnologies, Inf’OGM; Éric Meunier, Decembre 2013

[3Decree n°2012-128 of 30th January 2012 on labelling of foodstuff qualified as ‘GMO-free’, enacted 1st July 2012