Food producers and retailers have hit back at claims by the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) that their white bread contained high levels of genetically modified (GM) soya flour.

The companies made it clear that GM soya flour made up less than 5 percent of the overall ingredients used to bake a loaf of bread.

In a report, “GM Contamination, Cartels and Collusion in South Africa’s Bread Industry”, released in May, ACB alleged that testing of the GM content of soya flour used in popular white breads revealed high levels of the ingredient.

According to the Consumer Protection Act, food producers, importers and packagers are required to label food products in which genetically modified organisms (GMOs) make up more than 5 percent and state the level of the GMO content. The act also allows for the label to state: “May contain GMOs”, if it is scientifically impractical to test for the GM content in the food product.

ACB also claimed that food companies and retailers were hiding behind the “may contain GMOs” label when in fact some of the ingredients that were used to make bread contained a high level of GMOs.

However, Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Tiger Brands all said GM soya flour made up less than 5 percent of their white bread. Pick n Pay, whose soya flour was found to be 42.82 percent GM, said its white bread contained less than 5 percent GM products.

Cindy Jenks, Pick n Pay’s general manager of the technical division, said its bread contained less than 0.5 percent of soya flour. “As per the Consumer Protection Act it is our policy to label any products as containing GM when the GM level may be over 5 percent. In this case, the GM content falls well below that threshold.”

The report also claimed that Tiger Brands’s Albany white bread had at least 23.23 percent of GM content in its soya flour.

“In the case of bread, the ingredient mixture used to make Albany bread products contained less than 5 percent of GM soya flour,” the company’s corporate affairs executive, Alex Mathole, said.

“In instances where it is not scientifically feasible to analyse, Tiger Brands applies a cautionary disclosure,” he said.

Woolworths said only 5.3 percent of its private label food contained ingredients derived from potential GM sources. On the issue of its white bread, which was found to have 85.62 percent of GM content in its soya flour, Woolworths said these findings needed to be clarified.

A recent study of a loaf of white bread found that the soya flour component – which makes up significantly less than 1 percent of the whole loaf – contained 85 percent of GMOs and not the whole loaf itself, Zyda Rylands, the managing director of Woolworths Food, said.

Woolworths added that it was difficult to source non-GM soya products at competitive prices, since the agricultural industry had changed significantly since the introduction of GM crops in 1998. “We check all ingredients back to source, and where we cannot guarantee that the ingredient was not derived from a GM crop, we label the product as ‘may be genetically modified’.”

Tiger Brands added that the soya bean supply chain in South Africa could not manage the separation of GM and non-GM products at this stage, as it would necessitate increased investment in seed management, crop storage, as well as additional control from seed to plate, which came at a significantly increased cost.