Press Release from the African Centre for Biosafety 20th March 2012

Following revelations that several common household food products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) has sought advice on its legal options. The ACB seeks to enforce the public’s right of access to information on the GMO content of food products so that consumers can make informed choices according to their individual wishes and needs.

Mariam Mayet, the spokesperson for the ACB, revealed that the ACB has been advised that regulations made under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) require that, as of October 2011, all food products containing at least 5% GMOs approved for commercialisation by the Executive Council for GMOs must carry a notice stating that the product ‘contains Genetically Modified Organisms’. These regulations apply irrespective of whether the food products were made or manufactured in South Africa or overseas, and prohibit the production, supply, import or packaging of food products without the required notice.

This notice must be applied to the products themselves or to marketing material and must be in a conspicuous and easily legible manner and size. Mayet stated that the ACB has been advised that it is an offence for any person to omit a labelling description without authority and that anyone convicted of such an offence is liable upon conviction to a fine or imprisonment not exceeding 12 months (or to both). The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) recently announced that it represents companies importing, producing, packing and supplying consumer goods in South Africa and that it has sought clarity from the National Consumer Commissioner (NCC) on GMO labelling requirements.

The CGCSA has advised that it is seeking clarity on whether its members are obliged to label only the four varieties of GMO maize, cotton, soybean and canola that have been approved by the Executive Council for GMOs, or whether it is intended that products containing these varietals as ingredients or components should also be labelled. The CGCSA has reported that it has not received a formal response from the NCC, and has averred that the NCC has stated that it would not enforce the GMO labelling requirements pending an investigation into the issue by a Task Team comprising of members of various government departments.

Environmental attorney Adrian Pole has advised the ACB that he is of the view that the regulations are applicable to all food products containing 5% or more of the GMO varietals referred to, which includes food products containing these varietals as ingredients or components. According to Adrian Pole, there is no evidence of a legal exemption from the GMO labelling requirements having been granted, and the operation of the law cannot simply be suspended by a letter from the CGCSA requesting clarity on the labelling requirements. The regulations were published in April 2011 and came into effect six months after the CPA commenced on 31 March 2011.

The companies involved in the import, production, packaging and supplying of food products containing 5% GMOs have therefore had adequate time to plan and implement the notice and labelling requirements to ensure legal compliance. Should the ACB fail to secure an undertaking from the CGCSA or the companies it represents that the GMO labelling requirements will be implemented without further delay, it intends to instruct its attorney to lodge a formal Complaint with the NCC. The NCC is obliged to direct an inspector to investigate any such formal Complaint, which could lead to the issuing of a Compliance Notice against the companies concerned.