WHO IS SERVING US
CSE's study finds how genetically modified foods are illegally entering our kitchens
In a first-of-its-kind study in India, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) tested 65 food products available in the market to see if they contained genetically modified (GM) ingredients. To its horror, CSE found GM genes in 32 per cent of the products; almost 80 per cent of them imported. How did these products find their way into the country when food safety law prohibits the manufacture, import and sale of GM food? Who is to be blamed for this illegality?
IT ALL started at the weaning stage. Nikki (name changed) was about to turn one when it became evident that she was not gaining weight. After several visits to pediatricians and multiple tests, she was diagnosed with cow milk protein allergy—a disorder found in some 7 per cent of children in the country. The doctors said that Nikki’s immune system considers the protein in cow milk as something that the body has to fight off. This leads to damage of the intestinal mucosa lining for which Nikki is not able to digest most of what she eats and suffers from chronic diarrhoea. They suggested changes in her diet—first eliminate all potentially allergenic foods from her diet, so that the intestinal lining can heal, and then reintroduce one food at a time to monitor possible reactions. Till she outgrows the allergy, doctors recommended a hypoallergenic infant formula, Similac Alimentum to supplement her nutritional needs. Manufactured and imported by American healthcare giant Abbott Laboratories, a 400 gram packet of Similac Alimentum costs `2,800 and can meet Nikki’s requirement for about 10 days. But cost is the last thing on the mind of Nikki’s mother, an occupational therapist in east Delhi. Every day she carefully prepares the formula milk meeting the prescribed calibration standards to ensure that Nikki regains health. Little does she know that all these months she has been feeding her toddler genetically modified (GM) food, whose safety to health has been a matter of concern worldwide.
Researchers with the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) in Delhi recently found evidence of GM ingredients in Similac Alimentum and another infant formula by Abott—Similac Isomil, which is meant for the lactose intolerant. Infants with lactose intolerance cannot digest the sugar found in milk and dairy products and are often prescribed soya milk which is naturally lactose-free.
The finding is alarming because the products are being increasingly prescribed by doctors for infants with special health needs. It is also alarming because in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court last year, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (fssai) said, “The Central government has not notified any regulation under Section 22 of the Food Safety and Standards Act in regard to (sic) the manufacture, distribution, sale and import of GM foods. Hence, GM foods are not allowed in the country and neither can be regulated till such notification is issued.”
But the list of such illegal GM products being sold in India does not end here.
GM IN YOUR FOOD: CSE STUDY
Over the past six months, cse researchers analysed 65 food products that are likely to contain soyabean, corn, rapeseed (canola) or cottonseed oil in some form or the other. These are the crops whose GM variants are grown on 99 per cent of the area under transgenic food crops in different parts of the world, and are used in everyday food like cooking oils, breakfast cereals, ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat foods, infant formula and protein supplements. Thirty of the food products are manufactured domestically; the remaining imported. The products were tested at cse’s state-of-the-art Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (pml), now at Nimli, Alwar, which has been credited for several hard-hitting exposé over the past two decades (see ‘Setting standards’, p36). To test food products for the presence of GM ingre-
There have been widespread reports about GM seeds being available across the country and crops being grown illegally
dients, pml acquired high-end machines and instruments that use the advanced analysis technology of qpcr (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) to amplify GM markers in a food product to detect their presence (see ‘Chasing GM markers’ p38).
“We had a hunch that GM food is finding its way onto our dinner plate in ways more than we know. There have been media reports about illegal GM seeds being available across the country and crops being grown,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of cse who led the research. “But we did not know the nature of ingredients used in packaged snacks and oils imported into the country. Since most such products are based on known GM crops like corn, soyabean and rapeseed, we decided to do a reality check,” he adds.
The evidence of GM ingredients was found in 32 per cent of the 65 products tested. Almost 80 per cent of these are imported. All the 16 imported products that
cse found GM-positive were from usa, Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand and the
uae. usa and Canada are the leading countries growing GM crops and producing GM food products. Though the remaining do not allow commercial cultivation of GM crops, their food processing units heavily rely on raw material imported from usa and Canada. Hudson canola oil imported from the uae says on its label that it is “extracted from Canadian oilseeds”.