Archived news articles - 2004

The Straits Times, 20 May 2004

New AVA lab testing GM food here

Singapore still debating whether to label such food before it goes on sale
By Chang Ai-Lien

A MILLION-DOLLAR laboratory with sophisticated testing facilities is looking into the genetic makeup of food products.

However, Singapore is still debating whether or not it should label genetically modified (GM) food.

The proteins and genetic material of various foods are being extracted and tested to see if the items contain any GM ingredients.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which is doing the tests, said one of its priorities is to improve its testing capabilities of Asian foods.

This is because Asian foods generally contain more ingredients, as well as spices that can destroy the DNA of the foods. This makes the testing process more difficult, said the head of the microbiology branch at the AVA food and veterinary administration, Mr Leslie Phua.

While it is easier to detect GM foods before they are processed, say as uncooked ears of corn, more sophisticated techniques are being developed here to make it possible after they have been processed.

The tests are carried out in the AVA GM food testing laboratory, which is part of its $30 million Veterinary Public Health Centre in Lim Chu Kang.

Dr Guy Van den Eede, who is from the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection at the European Commission joint research centre, said techniques available now allow scientists to detect even minute amounts of GM foods or ingredients.

GM products come from plants that have been inserted with special genes to give them certain properties, including making them pest- and disease-resistant. Although such foods have been greeted with suspicion in many countries, they have burgeoned worldwide.

There are now more than 100 GM plant species grown in 18 countries, said National Development Ministry permanent secretary Tan Tee How yesterday.

The consensus so far is that GM foods are safe to eat, he said. 'Of course, there are always unscrupulous businessmen who will try to make a quick buck by releasing non-approved GM foods for sale,' he added.

The challenge to regulators here is to come up with ways to catch them using the framework now in place, he said. This means close tabs must be kept on the GM food market.

Mr Tan was speaking at the first Asean GM food testing network meeting, which brought together representatives in the region to look at international developments and directions in testing methods of GM food.

GM products have been on supermarket shelves here for several years. About half the soya bean and corn sold here is genetically modified. Apart from whole corn and beans, the list also includes the ingredients of anything from flour to potato crisps and baby food.

AVA's chief executive officer, Dr Ngiam Tong Tau, said that while these items have been tested to ensure that they are safe, new GM products have to go through a special approval process before they can go on sale.

Some countries strongly believe that GM products should be labelled so that consumers can decide whether they want to buy them or not. The European Union, for example, has already made labelling such items compulsory.

However, Singapore is waiting to take its cue from Codex Alimentarius, an international committee that is still debating the issue, said Dr Ngiam.

Said Dr Van den Eede: 'There may be a tendency towards worldwide labelling. 'People like to know what kind of food they're eating.'

Singapore Press Holdings Limited The Straits Times (Singapore).Copyright 2004

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