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The Right to Know, But Not to Choose

A local Beijing newspaper reported on March 21 that, prompted by a reader's letter, they could find little choice in the capital when it came to buying non-genetically modified (GM) cooking oil.

A man surnamed Chen wrote to Beijing Youth Daily saying he could not buy any soya bean oil produced from non-GM soya beans. Although there is no evidence of any brands of oil being improperly labeled since May 1 last year, consumers have rarely been able to buy a non-GM brand.

A journalist from the paper went to several Beijing supermarkets, large and small, but failed to find any brand of non-GM bean oil. He went to five well-known outlets, including Carrefour and MerryMart, and found that all 16 brands sold there were labeled as GM products.

Elder consumers said they were not so concerned about whether the bean oil they bought was genetically modified or not, but were sensitive to price.

One customer buying cooking oil said he had no choice but to buy GM. "There isn't non-GM bean oil in the market. If I turn to peanut oil or corn oil, I would have to pay 20 yuan (US$2.4) more for a 5-liter package. For people on ordinary salaries, there is no non-GM option."

Manufacturers responded that the use of GM beans as raw materials is driven by cost. The producer of Luhua, a famous brand, said that the supply of domestic soya beans is far below demand. This is the major reason that cooking oil producers turn to imported GM beans, which are cheaper but produce more oil.

An anonymous cooking oil trade insider said the cost of GM beans is lower than that of non-GM beans and, as China does not limit the use of GM raw materials, most producers choose cheaper imported GM beans. The soya beans China now imports are all genetically modified.

Wang Zhenqi is an official from the Beijing Agricultural Bureau and responsible for GM products. He recognized that non-GM bean oil is indeed rarely seen in Beijing's markets.

Nevertheless, as the power of government is only to check whether producers have properly labelled their GM products, nothing can be done if companies choose GM beans as long as they label their products accordingly.

Wang said the production of GM bean oil is a result of market behaviour and government is unable to step in.

(China.org.cn by Wind Gu March 31, 2005)

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