A Thai food scare over genetically engineered organisms in packaged food has had little resonance in Cambodia, despite a study that shows some products sold here likely contain genetically modified ingredients, or GMOs.
The study, conducted by environmental watchdog Greenpeace in Bangkok, found a variety of foods, from potato chips to baby food, containing ingredients that were created in a laboratory using the controversial practice of genetic manipulation.
Greenpeace officials said at the very least, the foods should be labeled so consumers know if they are buying GMO products. Greenpeace says GMOs are potentially unsafe because they have not been thoroughly tested.
The Thai government quickly responded with an announcement that it would require labels on all GMO foods.
Government ministers here, however, said they were unaware of GMO foods in general.
Three top officials at Camcontrol, the Import, Export Inspection and Fraud Suppression Department at the Ministry of Commerce, said either that they had never heard of GMO foods or had just learned of them from following the news about Thailand’s decision on labels.
Po Samnang, deputy director of the national center for health promotion at the Ministry of Health, said the government knows little about the subject.
“The ministry has not researched genetic food yet. If this problem is a big problem, than the next step is going to be a meeting between the ministry of commerce, health and also the Council of Ministers,” he said. He added that the issue of baby food does not involve his department, but a separate department concerned with women’s and children’s health.
Sok Siphana, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said until scientific research proves that the foods are dangerous, the Cambodian government is unlikely to respond to the Greenpeace study.
“There’s no scientific research to show that GMOs are dangerous,” he said. “In international trade law, there’s no law that bans GMO products. That’s the movement of Greenpeace. We can’t let their words interfere with international and national trade unless there’s scientific proof that GMOs are dangerous,” he said.
Steven Idding, an environmental engineer at the World Health Organization, said food safety issues in Cambodia are stuck at a more fundamental level concerning hygiene, proper food storage and proper food handling.
A WHO consultant on food safety issues is scheduled to arrive in early May, Idding added, saying the consultant will work with the government on food safety and the establishment of government controls to monitor food.
The Greenpeace study found seven foods for sale in Thailand that contained genetically engineered (GE) products: Pringles potato chips, Lay’s Stax potato chips, Nestle baby food (Baby Cerelac), Unilever’s Knorr instant cream of corn soup, Nissin Cup Noodle duck flavor, Vita-Tofu soybean curd and Good Time instant cereal beverage.
A check of area supermarkets on Tuesday found many of the foods for sale in Phnom Penh supermarkets: Yunam Supermarket had the effected products from Pringles, Lay’s, Nestle and Nissin; Lucky supermarket had all but the Vita-Tofu and Good Time products; and City Top Supermarket had the products of Nestle, Pringles and Lays.
Managers of the stores were either unavailable for comment or said they were unaware of GMO foods being imported to Cambodia.
Jim Thomas a spokesman for Greenpeace, said his group has concerns over genetically engineered foods because they have not been thoroughly tested. These fears include unknown side affects and the possible introduction of new proteins, toxins or allergens. Little testing is required, or done, to determine the safety of the new life forms, he said.
The US Food and Drug Administration, for example, requires no testing of the genetically engineered foods before approving them for human consumption.
The British Medical Association and the Royal Society of Canada have strongly condemned the use of GE foods since they carry a designed resistance to antibiotics; authorities fear that resistance could be passed to bacteria either in the stomach or in the environment, making common antibiotics ineffective against them, Thomas said.
“Besides their inherent unpredictability is the fact that they are alive. If something goes wrong it will be extremely hard, possibly impossible, to recall the genetic pollution,” he said.
The US and Canada are among the only large countries that allow GE foods to go without labels in the marketplace, according to Greenpeace.