Thailand: Consumers confused in row over GMO food products

by Prangtip Daorueng

Bangkok, 20 Apr 2001 (IPS) - Environmental groups in the United States have successfully gotten taco shells with genetically modified corn pulled out of supermarket shelves, but for now it is difficult to see such a move happening in Thailand.

While consumers here might have been using food products with genetically modified corn containing Cry9C - found in the taco shells produced by Aventis Crop Science and which experts and activists say could also be in food products available in Thailand - such a strong reaction as that seen in the United States is unlikely.

This is because many Thai consumers are simply confused by the mixed, and at times conflicting, information sent out by the proponents and opponents in their dispute over genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“I am not scared of GMO food, but I don’t allow my children to eat it,” says Panadda Laochuwong, a 40-year-old office worker and mother of two. “The other day I stopped my children from reaching out to get a potato pack in the shop, telling them that was unsafe. But actually, I am not sure what to think about it.”

Panadda’s reaction to GMO food is common among Thai consumers who were recently made aware of the issue.

On 10 April, Greenpeace and a local environmental group Green Net announced results of a laboratory examination that showed a number of food items tested positive for GMOs. This led to warnings from a Thai expert that some of the products might have Cry9C, the same material found in the US taco shells.

The sale of the taco shells was stopped after a coalition of environmental groups found in them the presence of StarLink genetically modified corn that contains Cry9C, a potential allergen that has not been approved for human consumption.

Greenpeace and Green Net, which identified seven food products with GMOs in Thailand this month, also urged the government to initiate an urgent labelling policy to protect consumers’ rights. These seven products were among 30 items from Thailand that the two groups sent to a Hong Kong-based laboratory for genetic testing - although manufacturers of the items here said there was no GMO material in their products.

In their joint press conference, Greenpeace and Green Net identified the seven products as Nestle (AAC) baby food (Baby Cerelac), Unilever’s Knorr instant cream of corn soup, Nissin cup noodles (duck flavour), Vita-Tofu soybean curd, Good Time instant cereal beverage, Lay’s stax and Pringles potato crisps. Of the seven, two products each were from the United States and Europe and the rest were produced locally.

According to the environmental groups, the results of the test by the GMO testing firm Hong Kong DNA Chips Ltd showed that three of the seven products had Roundup Ready soyabeans, two had Roundup Ready maize, one had general genetically modified maize and another, BT endotoxin - different kinds of GMOs used in food products.

Somwong Trakoonrong, director of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology’s (Biotech) DNA Fingerprinting Laboratory, told the media that the laboratory tests showed that two of the items might contain Cry9C.

In the tests, Greenpeace and Green Net activists said Pringles brand potato chips and cream-of-corn flavoured Knorr cup soup tested positive for the presence of the so-called NOS Terminator and Bt-endotoxin (Bt) genes.

These genes, which were extracted from a bacterium, are inserted into genetically modified corn to make the crop pest-resistant. Both of these products contain corn flavouring.

Somwong says two proteins, Cry1C and Cry9C, are associated with the Bt gene.  While Cry1C has been approved for human consumption, Cry9C has only been cleared for use in animal feed. Normally, GMOs containing only Cry1C do not test positive for NOS. “There is a high possibility that the two products are contaminated with Cry9C, because they tested positive for the presence of both NOS and Bt,” he says.

Though labelling seems to be a good way out at the moment, environmentalists say only consumer pressure can successfully see this through, since there is no law prohibiting GMO food in the country.

However, many consumers say they do not feel strongly enough about the GMO issue to react.

Kesorn Chongbaanchob, a 29-year-old housewife, admits she still does not understand what GMO food means for her daily life. “I read the news, but still don’t understand so I don’t think I can do anything about it. I am not worried because it doesn’t come like an earthquake from which we can’t run away,” says the mother of two.

But 26-year-old Maneerat Sawangkit worries about knowing too little of the issue. “It makes me feel unsure about the future. We never know how much protection we have. If GMOs really turned harmful, what will happen to us in the future?”

One big problem for Thailand and other developing countries is that consumers are caught between contradicting scientific explanations on GMOs.

After the environmental groups released their statement, for example, the manufacturers of the seven items responded by issuing statements saying that their products are GMO-free.

Senior staffers of two Thai GMO advocacy institutes, Biotech and the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), criticised Greenpeace, saying that there is no evidence that GMOs are harmful to humans.

Some of the views from officials varied, for instance, from that of Biotech’s Somwong. Since Thailand has no official position on the consumption of GMO food, officials appear to have been airing individual views on the issue.

Nestle Group Thailand said the soybeans used in Nestle Cerelac are grown in the kingdom, and had been analysed and certified as GMO-free by the public health ministry. Pringles producer, Procter & Gamble, says all Pringles products available in Thailand, the US and Europe are manufactured at two plants using the same technology and similar raw materials. A spokesperson for Nissin Food (Thailand) Co Ltd says of the news of GMO presence: “This announcement will affect our sales.” Jeerakorn Gajasanee, director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, says however that he stands by the test results and is ready to go to court if any company sues the organisation.

“These messages confuse people,” says 32-year-old office manager Tiamjai Thongmuang. “To understand what GMOs mean to us, we don’t need information too technical and only from two opposite sides. We need the government to give us more information so that we can make decisions.”

Scientific explanations are just one of several things a consumer like Tiamjai has to digest, the others being complicated ones like the larger question of countries’ development approach and international trade.

Auaiporn Suthonthanyakorn of Greenpeace Southeast Asia adds that the results of the Hong Kong tests show that multinational firms like Nestle (AAC), Unilever and PepsiCo are practising double standards because their products sold in Thailand are different from those they sell in developed countries.

Nestle (AAC) in Germany, for example, announced in 1996 it was committed not to use GMOs in its baby food products and still adheres to this commitment there, critics say.

“But here in Thailand, Nestle (AAC) is feeding children genetically engineered baby food without even informing mothers about GE ingredients,” says Greenpeace International campaigner Jim Thomas, adding that it was “utterly irresponsible of them to treat Thais as second-class consumers”.

However, there are positive signals from the government. Deputy Public Health Minister Surapong Seubwonglee says that although a ban on GMO products does not exist in Thailand, he would urge the Food and Drug Administration to issue a labelling policy to give people information to make intelligent choices.

“Consumers must be informed about whether the food they eat contains GMOs,” he points out. – SUNS4881

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