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The Asahi Shimbun/2019/7/11 14:10

Gene-edited food should be labeled as such to benefit consumers

The government seems bent on deciding against subjecting gene-edited food products to strict labeling requirements.
It is apparently putting the interests of regulators before those of consumers.
The government is leaning toward adopting a policy of not requiring food suppliers to label gene-edited food products, such as red sea bream bred to have more muscle and tomatoes grown to contain more nutritional components, in a way that indicates that they have been genetically altered.
Last month, the Consumers Affairs Agency said it is “difficult” to impose such labeling requirements on food suppliers. The final decision on the issue is due soon.
The health ministry has already concluded that the alterations of one to several DNA sequences through cuts in DNA strands do not amount to genetic modification as long as no gene from another species has been introduced or remains. Therefore, food products derived from genome editing technology do not need to be subject to a special safety review, according to the ministry’s decision.
The ministry has argued that such genetic changes should not raise concerns because they are not unique to genome editing, but can also occur naturally and can be produced with conventional breeding.
Consumer organizations, however, have taken exception to this decision and contended that stringent labeling requirements to clearly indicate genetic changes are all the more needed for such products if they are not subjected to a health review.
The mission of the Consumers Affairs Agency is to ensure that consumers can choose products and services according to their own rational judgment so that they can feel safe and secure about their consumption. A “no-labeling required” policy would be at odds with its mission.
The agency maintains that since it is technologically difficult to distinguish genetic alterations through gene editing from changes due to other factors, it would be effectively impossible to identify violators of any labeling requirements.
The agency has also pointed out the need to avoid putting too many administrative burdens on businesses without good reason.
The agency’s rationale for its position on the issue is far from convincing.
The agency is effectively saying that it will not establish any labeling rules concerning gene-edited foods because it would be impossible to enforce them and leave the matter to voluntary efforts by businesses. It is difficult to believe that the public will accept its stance.
Food suppliers, for their part, have the responsibility to gather relevant and accurate facts and information about their products and provide them to consumers.
What is behind the agency’s misguided approach to the issue? In June last year, the Cabinet decided on a new “Integrated Innovation Strategy,” which calls on ministries and agencies concerned to ensure that the first gene-edited food products will hit the shelves as soon as possible.
The agency may be putting a top priority on meeting this policy goal.
Genome editing technology is still in an early development stage and there is no telling what kind of gene-edited products will reach the market.
There is no international consensus on how to deal with products created through gene editing. Last summer, the European Court of Justice ruled that genome editing counts as genetic engineering, adopting a position that is completely different from that of the health ministry.
A survey by a group of researchers at the University of Tokyo has found that there is “vague anxiety” among the public about gene editing.
The government should be leading efforts to promote an accurate understanding of the technology and correct misunderstandings and prejudices, if any, through careful explanations. But the government is showing no signs of a strong commitment to making such efforts.
Developing good products is a futile exercise if they are not accepted by consumers. It is vital for the government to tackle this issue from the viewpoint of consumers.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 11




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