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It comes as no surprise that consumer groups here are reacting cautiously to the government’s draft plan requiring some food products containing genetically modified ingredients to be clearly labeled to indicate that fact. Controversy was only to be expected from the decision by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to exempt certain foodstuffs from the proposed requirement, specifically those in which it is impossible to detect GM ingredients or in which the the ingredients are removed or dissolve during processing.

More surprising to many observers is that ministry officials appear set to take such a decisive, if still limited, step so quickly. Japan, in other words, is following in the footsteps of the European Union, which legally requires manufacturers to label genetically altered foodstuffs, rather than of the United States, which together with Canada is a major producer of GM crops and strongly opposes labeling requirements. As critics note, soybeans are a leading example of a GM crop produced in the U.S., and 97 percent of the soybeans used in this country are imported.

At the summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations in Cologne last month, France proposed the establishment of an international group similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to oversee worldwide food standards, but the U.S. roundly rejected the idea. European governments, of course, have good reason to be sensitive to public opinion on food safety following the recent reports of cancer-causing dioxin contamination in chicken, eggs and livestock in Belgium, the temporary removal of Coca-Cola Co. products from store shelves in several countries and the earlier ban on British beef sales due to fears of “mad cow” disease.

The fact is that none of those concerns was in any way related to GM farm products. It does not follow, however, that the U.S. was correct in arguing against the need for the food regulatory body proposed by France, which would be similar to a system already in place for evaluating medicines. One result is that public worries over GM foods continue to increase even as scientists issue renewed assurances that they pose no health risks.

Perhaps so, but the food industry worldwide has failed to persuade people of it. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the greatest beneficiaries of genetically altered foodstuffs are growers and processors, not consumers. It is not reassuring that the presence of recombined DNA chains and proteins cannot now be detected in some products such as cooking oil, soy sauce and processed tomatoes and that some experts remain concerned about possible allergic reactions. The decision by Agriculture Ministry officials to exempt certain products from its labeling requirement calls for further study.

It is not succumbing to hysteria to ask if a greater effort should not be made to note the presence of GM foods here at the distribution stage. Most of the soybeans that Japan imports, for example, are distributed without distinction as to whether or not they are genetically altered. Some experts point out, however, that enforcing a system to distinguish between GM soybeans and those produced naturally could raise the overall soybean price by anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent, thus raising supermarket prices for such everyday items as tofu, “natto” and soy sauce.

There are other reasons to call for more research on genetically altered agricultural products before they become staples on every table, not least their possible effect on the environment. The built-in resistance to pests exhibited by GM crops could at the same time prove fatal to other insects and thus reduce global biodiversity. It was announced only last month, for example, that U.S. scientists have discovered that the pollen of a genetically altered corn plant is toxic to the Monarch butterfly. There have also been reports of the deaths of beneficial insects that eat the targeted insect pests which consumed the corn.

Such potential risks to public health and the environment have not been sufficiently investigated. European leaders last month called on the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation to study and report on any possible dangers from GM foods. Not all of the fears expressed about them may be rational, but that needs to be established beyond dispute. The Agriculture Ministry’s plan for the labeling of these food products is only one step in the right direction. In view of the possible environmental threat, a thorough review of the inspection criteria for all GM foodstuffs should be high on the ministry’s agenda.

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