Several new chapters have recently been written in the ongoing debate about genetically modified/engineered organisms (GMOs) used in food production. These range from a global agreement enabling individual countries to adopt GM food labeling to various European, US and African activities concerning GMO use.

GMOs are defined by global food safety monitoring organization Codex as “genetically engineered/modified organisms, and products thereof, (that) are produced through techniques in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”1 Consumer advocates, the organic industry and others have objected to the use of GMOs on the grounds that the long-term health and environmental effects are unknown.

On the Labeling Front

A 20-year debate has been resolved with a decision to allow voluntary labeling indicating the presence of GMOs under the auspices of Codex. Such labeling has been stalled largely because of opposition from the US delegation. In July, the US delegation dropped its objections in return for consensus language stating that “foods derived from modern biotechnology are not necessarily different from other foods simply due to their method of production.”2 New guidelines issued
by Codex will allow countries to adopt GMO labeling without the risk of a legal challenge from the World Trade Organization, because national measures based on Codex guidance or standards cannot be challenged as a barrier to trade.

In Europe

Recent GMO action began in March when the European Court of Justice’s attorney general issued an opinion that France’s ban on genetically modified maize developed by Monsanto was illegal. The opinion stated that France “could not suspend the planting of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn without having asked prior permission from the European Commission”.3 France had been one of seven European countries to ban the maize, which previously was one of only two GMO crops approved for planting in the EU. The opinion suggests how the court will rule when the case is heard.

In July, the European Parliament adopted a plan that gives individual EU Member States the right to ban or restrict GMO crop cultivation for a wide variety of reasons, including pesticide resistance, biodiversity preservation, or socioeconomic impacts such as inability to manage contamination risks to agriculture.4 The plan – still needing final approval – would be a major change to existing policy under which all EU Member States must follow EU-wide rules except in certain circumstances. The European Parliament also highlighted the need for the EU Commission and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to update GMO guidelines, which have allowed the approval of a large number of genetically modified animal feed and human food products and ingredients. On August 10, EFSA launched public consultation on its draft guidance for the risk assessment of food and feed derived from GM animals. The public will be able submit comments until Sept. 30, 2011.5

In the US

A group of senators has asked the US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) to drop plans to consider a commercial company’s request to allow farming of what would be the first genetically modified fish approved for human consumption.6 The US House had expressed its opposition to the plan by passing an amendment to a bill that would eliminate funding for the program. Concerns include loss of fishery jobs in coastal states as well as potential escape of GMO salmon from fish farms that might harm native populations and/or out-compete them for food.

In Africa

On July 1, 2011, Kenya joined South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso as the fourth country in Africa to allow the production and importation of GM crops. Other African countries are also conducting research on GM crops such as Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana.7

However, concerns exist over the financial ability of governments to monitor the illegal production and trade of GM crops. Disagreements over the role of GM crops in relieving famine and providing food security for a growing African population are also hindering the implementation of biosafety regulations in many countries.8

All around the world GMO products are controversial. With this environment of developing policy and resulting great uncertainly, SGS has developed high technology testing capabilities to detect and track GMO presence in all raw and finished food materials. Our specialists are available to assess and monitor your global food supply chains from field to fork.

1 Codex – Marketing of Organically Produced Foods
2 U.S. Drops Opposition to Voluntary GM Labeling
3 EU court official: French ban on GMO maize illegal
4 GMOs: Parliament backs right to cultivation bans
5 EFSA – News
6 FDA – opposition to genetically engineered salmon
7 Kenya approves law to allow GM crops
8 Africa Still Debating GMOs’ Pros And Cons

James Cook
Food Safety Technologist
SGS – North America

t: +1 973 575 5252


The SGS Group is the global leader and innovator in inspection, verification, testing and certification services. Founded in 1878, SGS is recognized as the global benchmark in quality and integrity. With more than 67,000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 1,250 offices and laboratories around the world.