Russians Forced to Eat GM Food

Food producers using genetically modified components have launched a fight against public ad that tell people more information about food they buy
Activists of the ecological movement "Be Aware of What You Buy!" in the Russian city of Volgograd compile information about genetically modified components in food. This week activists of the movement have faced undisguised threats issued by a large food producer of the city. Director General of the ecological project Sergey Shavlak says he got several threats demanding that the movement must cease "its useless activity". Sergey Shavlak claims that last year the movement circulated a questionnaire among the leading enterprises of the city asking whether they used genetically modified components. Unfortunately, only a confectionary filled in the questionnaire. "This year we sent the questionnaire to 16 enterprises of Volgograd and warned that in case we got no reply to the questionnaire we would name enterprises that didn’t deny usage of genetically modified components on the website of the ecological movement. In a couple of days, I had a call on my mobile phone (by the way the number of my phone wasn't mentioned in the questionnaire) and had to listen to threats from one of Volgograd's largest enterprises."
Volgograd is a city with highly developed food industry; recently it has become a target for producers of genetically modified components, ecologists say. At that experts say that reaction of food producers to information about usage of genetically modified components is typical of other Russian cities as well, not only Volgograd.

A resolution of Russia's Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onischenko "On Implementation of Sanitary Regulations" came into effect on September 1, 2002. In accordance with the document, food producers are obliged to supply their products with detailed information about genetically modified contents. According to information provided by the international organization "For Biological Safety", there are just few producers that provide this information on the labels. Spokesperson for the organization Olga Berlova told RBC Daily that she saw this marking only on two products, on crab sticks and stewed meat produced in the city of Uryupinsk. At that, if this marking still appears on labels it is placed so that it is incomprehensible or inconspicuous for consumers. Director of the Timiryazev Institute for Physiology of Plants Vladimir Kuznetsov says that it is rather infrequent that information about genetically modified components is actually marked on food. As a rule, the whole phrase informing about the genetically modified contents is tiny and undistinguishable for ordinary consumers.

There are several reasons explaining why the resolution issued by the chief sanitary inspector is still invalid. First of all, a complete list of genetically modified components that must be marked on food hasn't been compiled yet. There is a previously made list of genetically modified components; but it is outdated and doesn't include widely spread components that are not yet declared officially as genetically modified. Olga Berlova says aspartame is one of such components; it is widely used in production of drinks, ketchup and chewing gum. Usage of the component makes the production cycle much cheaper. Although aspartame is not mentioned on the official list of genetically modified components, producers admit that it is the product of genetic engineering. There was an incident in California when a great number of pregnant women appealed to court and complained that food with genetically modified components caused problems to pregnancy and child-bearing. In that case, Americans dodged: they admitted that phenylalanin (an element of aspartame) was harmful for pregnant women. Did you see that packs with chewing gum are supplied with an inscription saying that it contains phenylalanine which is contraindicated to people suffering from phenylketonuria? In fact, aspartame is dangerous for all people.

One more problem connected with genetically modified components is poor knowledge of food producers about such components. Ecologists say it often happens so that producers do not know exactly what components they use, let's take modified soy beans for example. Food producers often fall victims to smart importers who persuade them that usage of such components will reduce the end product cost. Ivan Blokov, the Greenpeace Russia campaign director says that 70-80% of soy beans produced in the USA is genetically modified. It is the USA that is Russia's largest supplier of soy; import of soy beans and soy products from the USA increased three times within the past three years. Under conditions when almost the whole of Europe has given up eating food with genetically modified components, Russia is now an important target for sale of such products, especially that the country has no stringent legislation on labeling of food with genetically modified components. On the other hand, many producers deliberately hush up information about the contents of their products. Olga Berlova says that mentioning of genetically modified components on food means the same as the scull and bones sign: if customers see such sign on food they will never buy the product.

In addition to the lack of legislation on biological safety of products, there are no methods that should be applied to determine the percentage of genetically modified components in food. Ivan Blokov says that there are no methods for determination of quantitative contents of genetically modified components in food, there are some that are applied to qualitative analysis. Unfortunately, qualitative analysis of food with genetically modified components is often held in laboratories that work by order of companies importing genetically modified stuff. Such laboratories sometimes popularize genetically modified components themselves. It is strange but the procedure for determining safety of food in Russia contradicts the international rules. It is nonsense that safety of product is determined by its producer.

Experts say that strict punitive measures must be introduced in order to punish those producers who don't mention genetically modified components on labels. One more problem of the Russian legislation on genetically modified components in food is that percentage of modified components in products that is obligatory for mentioning on labels. According to the Russian rules, the minimal contents of genetically modified components in food which are obligatory for mentioning on labels make up 5%, while this amount is considered dangerous for health in many countries.  Ivan Blokov, the Greenpeace Russia campaign director says: "On Wednesday, the European Parliament adopted new regulations according to which contents of genetically modified components exceeding 0.9% are obligatory for special labeling.  The 5% limit provided by the Russian legislation sounds nonsense."
Olga Berlova says that the situation with genetically modified food in Russia is quite understandable. "The action was started long ago. The law on genetic engineering developed by Academician Skryabin appeared in Russia in 1996, just exactly at the time when Americans wanted to expand the export of genetically modified soy beans. Now when the USA has practically lost the market for such products in Europe, they send them as humanitarian aid to Africa and Asia. In this respect, Russia is getting an important target for the USA. The USA probably expected to have a kinder welcome in Russia; they were shocked with the wave of protests against genetically modified food that is gaining steam in Russia. We hope that the situation with genetically modified food in Russia will seriously change soon."

Natalya Bendina

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Author`s name Michael Simpson