Kyodo News Japan is the focus of mounting attention over its stance on the issue of establishing standards for foods made from genetically modified organisms, a subject taken up by a U.N. task force during a meeting in Japan in March.

The main issue regarding the proposed standards is that of “traceability.” This is a system whereby the various steps involved from the cultivation and processing of farm products to the manufacture of food products and their distribution, even after they are marketed, are tracked and pinpointed.

The European Union wants to introduce a system of this kind, while the United States and Canada, the biggest producers of GMO foods, oppose such a move. Thus far, Japan has not clarified its position on the issue.

The traceability system is similar to that used by public administration officials when they get reports of food poisoning. They investigate the reports, tracing the places where the food products were purchased and manufactured and how the raw materials were distributed.

The traceability issue was a key focus of discussions during the second meeting of the Codex Ad-hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Food Derived from Biotechnology. The meeting was held from March 25 to 29 at the Makuhari Messe convention complex in Chiba Prefecture.

The EU, which is cautious over the issue of GMO foods, holds the view that the traceability system is necessary in cases where, for example, people are allergic to genetically altered food products. It also said the system could be useful in studying the effects of such foods on the human body.

Martin Frid, the food and trade policy officer of the Swedish government, voiced support for the system, citing the “preventive principles” that are becoming common among EU nations.

These principles enable authorities to take regulatory action should any detrimental effects on humans in the environmental and food product areas be suspected, even if they are not scientifically proved.

He said food-producing and exporting countries should consider whether it is acceptable for them to pollute the foodstuffs of other nations, adding that they should work in concert with other countries.

The U.S., Canada, Australia and Brazil have, however, adopted a negative posture on the traceability system, saying the question of food pollution can be handled fully by confirming the safety of food products before they are marketed.

The task force quoted a U.S. delegate as saying it would cost too much if all GMO products had to be traced back. A French representative meanwhile said that implementing a traceability system would be much cheaper than the costs incurred by food recalls and other adverse effects of unexpected accidents.

The discussion ended without resolution on the issue, with the Codex ad hoc task force carrying it over until the next meeting in 2002.

The U.S. and other food-exporting countries are unwilling to agree to the traceability system since they insist that GMO foods are perfectly safe, analysts said.

Misgivings have also been aired over the effectiveness of traceability in crops such as corn, which is reproduced by cross-fertilization and is hard to trace because the stamen that produces pollen scatters and settles on other stalks of the grain.

This is why Japan maintains its ambiguous stance.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said Japan recognizes the importance of traceability, but noted it also finds the issue of how strictly it could be applied to GMO foods problematic.

The meeting follows news reports that banned StarLink GMO corn was detected in food in the Japanese market.

StarLink corn contains a gene that creates a germ-killing substance and can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Natsuko Kumazawa of the consumer group Japan Offspring Fund attended the meeting as an observer. She said South Korea, a food-importing country like Japan, supports the introduction of traceability.

In order to respond to consumers’ anxiety, she said, the Japanese government should demand that food-producing nations implement necessary measures to ensure the growth of safe farm products.

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