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New Delhi-based research and advocacy body Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has exposed large-scale illegal presence and sale of genetically modified (GM) processed foods in the country in a first study of its kind for India.

Production, sale and import of these foods is banned in the country without the approval of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the CSE pointed out.

The CSE study, conducted by its Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), found 32 per cent of the tested 65 food products that are available in Indian markets to be GM-positive.

These food products were purchased randomly from retail outlets in Delhi-NCR, Punjab and Gujarat. Both imported (35) and domestically produced (30) samples were tested. “The imported samples fared worse: 80 per cent of the products which were found to be GM-positive, were imported,” said CSE.

Infant food, edible oil and packaged food snacks were among the products which were found to be GM-positive. Most of these are imported from the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand, and the UAE. These products were produced from or contain soya, cotton seed, corn or rapeseed (canola), which are known GM crops of the world.

Releasing the results of the study, CSE director general SunitaNarain said: “Our government says it has not allowed the import of GM food products. Then how is this happening? We have found that laws are not the problem – the regulatory agencies are.”

She said in tweet: #illegalGMinourfood @fssaiindia is responsible for ensuring that there is no GM food in India. Minister told parliament no approval for GM food given. Then how have we found in 80% of imported food tested?

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, said: “We had been hearing about the presence of illegal GM food in India, and decided to do a reality check by testing processed foods. We were shocked to know the scale in which GM foodshave penetrated the Indian market. The regulatory authorities are to blame here – the FSSAIhas not allowed any GM food on paper,but has failed to curb its illegal sales.”

“GM – genetically modified – products, especially food, raise a crucial question of safety: a question of how safe are they. The jury is still out on this,” says Narain.

This is because GM food involves taking genes (DNA) from different organisms and inserting them in food crops. There is a concern that this ‘foreign’ DNA can lead to risks such as toxicity, allergic reactions, and nutritional and unintended impacts.

Most countries in the world, including India, have decided to take a ‘precautionary’ approach to GM food. They have set stringent regulations for approval and labelling. The EU, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and South Korea have made it mandatory to label GM food so that consumers have a choice about what they are eating.

Narain tweeted: #illegalGMinourfood CSE study shows #Abbott Healthcare selling #infant food with GM in India. In #US after pressure selling produce GM-free. But not here. Why? Indian lives don’t matter?

CSE findings:

GM food contains foreign promoter and terminator genes. More than 90 per cent of GM crops in the market contain promoter genes like 35S promoter of cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) and FMV promoter of figwort mosaic virus, and NOS terminator of Agrobacterium tumefaciens.

Using quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR), CSE’s lab screened the food products to ascertain if they had a combination 35S promoter, NOS terminator and FMV promoter.

The key findings of the study are:

– 32 per cent (21 out of 65) of the food product samples tested were GM-positive.

– About 80 per cent (16 out of 21) of those which tested positive were imported. These were made of or used soy, corn and rapeseed and were imported from Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand, the UAE, and the US.

– 56 per cent (9/16) of oil samples, 25 per cent (10/39) of packaged food samples and 25 per cent (2/8) of infant food samples were GM-positive.

All five samples of cottonseed oil from India tested positive. This is because BT-cotton is the single GM crop that has been allowed for cultivation in the country.

This should worry us. Said Bhushan. “Firstly, no permission has been given for the use of GM cottonseed oil for human consumption. Secondly, cottonseed oil is also mixed in other edible oils, particularly vanaspati, which means we are consuming it without knowing,” he said.

– GM contamination was found in infant food, sold for children with medical ailments, including allergies. Two products by Abbott Laboratories, the American healthcare company, were found to be GM-positive – one was for lactose-intolerant infants and the other was a hypoallergenic (for minimizing the possibility of an allergic reaction). Neither product has any label warning parents that this food has GM ingredients.

– Other than edible oil, no processed food sample manufactured in India was found GM-positive.

– There was no mention of GM in the labels of 65 per cent (13/20) GM-positive samples labels. These include:  Canola oil brands (‘Farrell’ imported from UAE by Jindal Retails (India) Pvt Ltd; ‘Hudson’ from UAE, marketed by Dalmia Continental Pvt Ltd; ‘Jivo’ imported from Canada by Jivo Wellness Pvt Ltd);and cottonseed oil brands from India (‘Ankur’, ‘Ginni’, ‘Tirupati’ and ‘Vimal’).

Packaged foods like ‘Pancake syrup original’ and ‘Popcorn Hot N’ Spicy’ – both products of American Garden – imported in India by Bajoria Foods Pvt Ltd; ‘FrootLoops’ – a sweetened multigrain cereal from Kellogg’s imported by Newage Gourmet Foods; and ‘Crispy corn snacks’ from Bugles – distributed by General Mills Inc, USA and imported by Newage Gourmet Foods.

– Three products made false claims suggesting that no GM ingredient is used. These were ‘Candrop’ Canola oil from Canadaimported by Century Edible Cooking Oils Pvt Ltd; ‘Mori-nu silken tofu’ from the US, imported by Olive Tree Trading Pvt Ltd; and ‘PromPlus sweet whole kernel corn’ from Thailandimported by Guru KirpaImpex.

– Four products that carried labels of genetic engineering technology were ‘Butter and Garlic Croutons’ from MrsCubbison’s; ‘Corn puffs’ by Trix – distributed by General Mills Sales Inc, USA; ‘Original syrup’ from Aunt Jemima – distributed by Quaker Oats in the US; and ‘Dark corn syrup’ from Karo, US. All four products were imported by Newage Gourmet Foods.

Says Narain: “In 2008 (updated in 2012), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had issued guidelines for determining safety of such food — it cautioned that ‘there is a possibility of introducing unintended changes, along with intended changes, which may in turn have an impact on the nutritional status or health of the consumer.’ Keeping this in mind, India should adopt a health-based precautionary principle approach to GM food regulation and labelling.”

The FSSAI has now issued a draft notification on labelling, which includes GM food. Says Amit Khurana, programme director, food safety and toxins, CSE: “The FSSAI notification says that any food that has 5 per cent or more GM ingredients, shall be labelled, provided this GM ingredient constitutes the top three ingredients in terms of percentage in the product. The exemption limit of 5 per cent is very relaxed compared to other countries such as the EU, Australia and Brazil, which have limits at or below 1 per cent.”

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