FAO study: Cases of GMO contamination rise


Food imports contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represent a risk to the international food and feed trade. Eleven cases of contaminated rice, maize, linen and papaya have been recorded in France, EURACTIV France reports.

The rise of genetically modified farming across the globe has resulted in an increase of incidents in which weak traces of GMOs are recorded in the international food and feed trade.

The information emerged in a recent study carried out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which analysed information from 75 countries, including France.

The UN body has become concerned as the “incidents have led to trade disruptions between countries with shipments of grain, cereal and other crops being blocked by importing countries and destroyed or returned to the country of origin”.

The study will be presented in Rome this week (20 – 21 March 2014), during the FAO’s first conference on the issue of trade disruptions involving low levels of GM crops in international food and feed trade. The objective of the meeting is not to achieve an international accord, but to “facilitate a common understanding of the issue”.

“There is no international agreement defining or quantifying ‘low level’, therefore the interpretation varies from country to country,” the Rome-based organisation notes, adding that “in many countries it is interpreted as any level at which detection is possible”.

Moreover, the study indicates that 49% of the countries concerned do not own GMO detection capabilities robust enough to ensure the full inspection of their imports. According to Renata Clarke, the FAO senior food safety officer in charge of the survey, “It seems the more testing and more monitoring they do, the more incidents they find.”

A ‘jump’ over the last four years

The study points out that since 2002 there have been 198 incidents in the 75 countries surveyed. With 138 incidents recorded in the final four years (2009-2012) and only 60 in the first seven years (2002-2008), the FAO refers to the statistics for the final period as a “jump”.

In 2009, there was a peak of over 70 contamination incidents. The United States, China and Canada are the principal exporters of contaminated produce, with 35-45 incidents each, followed by Germany in fourth place with only ten.

Linseed (more than 50 incidents of contamination), rice (over 40 incidents) and the combination of rice cakes and noodles (over 30 incidents) form the top three of recorded cases of contamination. Maize (30 incidents) and soybean (less than five incidents) take fourth and eighth place respectively.

France: 11 cases in 10 years

France has recorded eleven incidents of contaminated food and feed. There have been five incidents of imported rice from the US (two), China (two) and Pakistan/India (one). Of the four cases of contaminated maize, all came from the US. Finally, an incident of contaminated linseed from Canada and another of papayas from Vietnam complete the list.

France was able to swiftly identify these incidents thanks to the European Union’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (four incidents), official controls (three) and warnings given by the US (two). Greenpeace uncovered one case of rice from China and an economic operator’s self-inspection uncovered the final case (rice originating from Pakistan/India). The reactions including removing the goods from the market (six incidents), EU emergency action (three) and blocking the import of the products whilst awaiting European measures (two).

France has also exported contaminated goods. Hungary reported contaminated soybean in 2011 and 2012, including batches originating from France (although the report does not give more details). Similarly, Madagascar detected GMOs in maize originating from France in 2007.

Steps towards abandoning the zero tolerance policy

A second FAO study may provide the answer to whether the unwanted presence of GMOs in foodstuff threatens the international food and feed trade.

According to some states, the most important risk factor for international trade is the absence of unifying legislation on GMOs (42% of countries that took part in the study described this as a very important factor), the unintentional contamination of crops (39%) and the lack of harmonisation between countries’ GMO authorisation dates (35%).

Moreover, “a more restrictive GMO regulation has a deterrent effect on maize trade flow”. Indeed, a strategy prohibiting contaminated products based on a system of thresholds has a limited effect on international commerce.

According to the FAO, “the results of the econometric study were similar to previous findings that favour non-zero tolerance policies from the perspective of regulation restrictiveness.”

In the European Union only two GM crops are approved for commercial cultivation: insect resistant maize, and potatoes with modified starch for industrial use.

Of the total area of GM maize grown in the EU in 2012 (129,000 hectares) one country, Spain, contributed more than 90%.

To date, seven EU countries have introduced national "safeguard" bans on growing Monsanto's MON 810 insect-resistant maize: Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg.

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