Pioneer Foods' Sasko white bread was the country's only major bread product that complied with the spirit of laws on labels for genetically modified food, according to a recent study. Photo: Leon Nicholas

Local food companies had been hiding large amounts of genetically modified organism (GMO) content behind the “may contain GMOs” label, but this might soon come to an end with possible changes to labelling regulations, the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) said this week.

In terms of the Consumer Protection Act, food producers, importers and packagers are required to label food products in which GMOs make up more than 5 percent and state the level of the GMO content.

“But there has been a loophole,” ACB consumer campaigner Zakiyya Ismail said.

Ismail said that labelling regulations were clear in most respects except for a slight technicality in the wording of the regulation.

“The regulation uses the words ‘genetically modified organisms’, which is different because when we talk about organisms we are talking about live organisms which could be found at a farm level.”

She said that by the time a product was complete and ready to be consumed it might be difficult to scientifically test for GMOs because the genetically modified aspect of the product’s ingredients could have degraded by that time, but testing for genetically modified ingredients was easier.

For example it is not feasible to test for GMOs in cotton oil, but it is feasible to test for genetically modified ingredients.

“So because the Consumer Protection Act only allows the ‘May contain GMOs’ label to be used where it is scientifically impractical to test for the GMO content, most food producers hide behind this,” she said.

However, this may soon come to an end as the National Consumer Council plans to meet with all stakeholders before the end of this month for a possible rewording of the law to replace the word organism with the word ingredient.

“When the new amended regulation is passed with the correct wording, food companies will have to start with proper labelling or we have to apply pressure to the consumer commission to force companies to do so,” Ismail said.

ACB’s latest report, “Below the belt, below the breadline – South Africa’s inequitable and GM-contaminated bread industry”, showed that most of the country’s white bread contained high levels of Monsanto’s genetically modified soya beans in the soya flour.

However, most bread companies were found to be flouting the labelling laws. Shoprite, Woolworths, Spar, Premier Foods, Pick n Pay, Tiger Brands and Foodcorp were found to have failed to properly label their white breads.

For example, Checkers white bread, which contained 91.09 percent of genetically modified content in its soya flour, had no warning label and no ingredients label. Woolworths white bread contained 85.62 percent of genetically modified content in soya flour and was only labelled as “may be genetically modified”. Sunbake bread owned by Foodcorp contained just less than 30 percent of genetically modified soya flour and was not labelled.

Only Pioneer Food’s Sasko white bread contained genetically modified soya flour that was “so low as to be unquantifiable”. It was labelled “produced using genetic modification”.

Woolworths said only 5.3 percent of its private label food products contained ingredients from potential genetically modified sources.

The report said South Africa consumed about 2.8 billion loaves of bread a year and spent more than R28 billion on this staple food.