Falling into the agenda for the May 2004 meeting the UN-backed organisation, the Codex Committee on Food Labelling (CCFL), will draft recommendations for the labelling of food ingredients obtained through certain techniques of genetic modification.
The heated debate on genetically modified foodstuffs continues to rage on across the globe as consumers, governments and food and agriculture industries create polar camps.
At a European level the EU15 block has cleared the toughest legislation on GM labelling the world has seen and set to be enforced next month. Provoking angry reactions from the US, a key producer of GM crops, that perceives the new rules as a barrier to trade and sent it running to the World Trade Organisation to be resolved by a dispute panel.
A sentiment compounded by the de facto moratorium on GM foodstuffs in Europe in place since 1998 with the EU refusing to endorse any new GM crop authorisations - no new GMOs pending approval could be imported or grown in the EU. Crops supplied, for example, by biotech giants Monsanto and Syngenta.
Under the new European Commission regulation on GM food and feed, all ingredients that contain or consist of genetically modified organisms, or contain ingredients produced from GMOs, will need to be labelled as such.
A threshold of 0.9 per cent will apply for the accidental presence of GM material, below which labelling of food or feed is not required. There will also be a 0.5 per cent threshold for the presence of GM material that has not been approved for use in Europe, provided it has a favourable safety assessment from the European Union scientific committees. This latter threshold will apply for three years.
The theory behind the new European labelling legislation is that if foodstuffs are labelled 'GM', the choice falls into the lap of the consumer who can decide if they wish to buy the food product, or not.
Retailers and manufacturers have avoided inclusion of GM ingredients because they are aware that the European consumer is archly suspicious of such products and will be unlikely to make a GM purchase. Certainly a wealth of polls and surveys bear out this belief.
In October last year the UK's Co-op supermarket group, which is also Britain's biggest farmer and calls itself a 'consumer-owned business', carried out a survey that found 55 per cent of those questioned were against GM, with a further 38 per cent yet to be convinced of its benefits.
The food group, that already has a self-imposed GM ban in place across all its businesses, found that some 78 per cent of those surveyed said they were unconvinced that GM is safe to eat, and, not surprisingly in light of this fact, a massive 79 per cent said they would not knowingly buy food containing GM ingredients.
Finding a path to a globally recognised system of labelling for genetically modified ingredients and foodstuffs will be a challenge for the UN-backed Codex Alimentarius Commission meeting at the 32nd session in Montreal, Canada from 10-14 May this year.
The Codex Alimentarius (Codex) was established in 1962 as a joint venture between the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The primary raison d'etre of the organisation is to protect 'the health and economic interests of consumers as well as encouraging fair international trade in food'. Labelling plays a key role in this protection.