Control over the labelling of food products has traditionally been scattered through various statutes and regulations. The fact that numerous pieces of legislation govern this area of law, has led to calls for a more uniform method of dealing with labelling that would be more effective in assisting consumers to evaluate the suitability of a product to their specific needs. Especially in the context of the debate surrounding genetically modified food and ingredients, there seems to be a need for more stringent and coherent labelling laws.
The Genetically Modified Organisms Act defines 'genetically modified organism' (GMO) as an organism whose genes or genetic material have been changed in a way that does not occur through the mating or recombination process found in nature. It involves human intervention in the genetic makeup of the organism, for example by transplanting genes between species where this would not occur naturally.
There exist widely differing views concerning the safety for humans of consuming GMO's.
Those in favour of the use of GMO's argue that they can help alleviate world hunger, as new insect resistant plant species can be bred, as well as species carrying bigger, better quality and more fruit. Those against the use of GMO's say that it is not the lack of production of food, but rather the unequal distribution of the world's food resources that causes food shortages in developing countries. They say that, if GMO's are freely available, the large corporations owning the patent rights to GMO's can still, through the price- hiking of GMO seeds, prevent the technology from benefiting those most in need. Opponents of GMO's further question the safety of these products, arguing that they cause food-related illnesses and allergies, and that the long- term effect of their consumption has not been established.
A number of international conventions incorporate what has become known as the cautionary principle. In terms of this principle a process should only go ahead once it is conclusively established that it poses no risk of harm. The National Environmental Management Act (an overarching Act to which all South African environmental legislation has to conform) also embraces this principle. It is therefore argued by many that, until the effects if GMO's on humans and the environment in general has been established, it should be banned completely, or at least more strictly controlled.
Although the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, as the name suggests, deals specifically with GMO's, it does not regulate the labelling of products containing GMO's. The Foodstuffs, Cosmetic and Disinfectants Act does empower the relevant Minister to make regulations as to what should appear an product labels, but as yet no regulations have been made as far as GMO's are concerned. This means that there is no obligation on producers to indicate on their product labels whether the product contains GMO's. As such, South African laws fall well below the standards adhered to internationally regarding the accuracy and sufficiency of information supplied on labels.
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