By Yuji Okada
TOKYO (B)--Concerns over unintentional contamination in food products by genetically-modified (GM) soybeans labeled as GM-free have led many Japanese manufacturers of soybean food products to take further preventive steps against GM crops at their production lines, officials told BridgeNews.
In April, environmental protection group Japan Offspring Fund revealed genetic traces of Roundup Ready soybeans in GM-free tofu (beancurd) produced by a local tofu maker following a test conducted by a GM testing laboratory owned by liquor maker Takara Shuzo Co. Ltd. The tofu was made from only locally-grown soybeans, which are currently GM-free.
Roundup Ready soybeans, genetically-engineered by U.S.-based Monsanto Co. to be extra resistant to herbicide, are not currently grown in Japan, although they are approved in Japan both for planting and consumption, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).
"We have decided to test tofu labeled as having been made 100% from domestic soybeans as Roundup Ready is not grown in Japan," a spokeswoman at Japan Offspring Fund said. "Our purpose was to check whether this tofu was labeled properly. As a result, we found (genetic traces of) Roundup Ready soybeans from one of the tofu packages that was supposed to have been made from Japanese soybeans, which proved the labeling was wrong."
An official at the Japan Tofu Association said the group has since requested local tofu makers and Zen-Noh, or Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, to make additional efforts on isolating domestic soybeans from imported GM soybeans at their production line or during the transportation process. The association, however, has not yet pinpointed the cause of the tofu contamination by Roundup Ready, he said.
The association official said commercial tofu manufacturers have to pay extra attention to prevent further contamination as most of them use both imported and domestic soybeans at the same production line.
"Our Association has warned manufacturers that even residues from GM soybeans can get co-mingled in non-GM soybeans and test positive (for GMOs) in inspection," the official added.
Some Japanese soy food manufacturers have since invested in installing equipment to enhance their efforts to prevent their GM-free food products being contaminated by GMOs, in addition to making requests to soybean suppliers to be extra careful in meeting their needs for GM and non-GM crops, sources said.
"Of course, we are worried (of possible contamination)," a spokesman at Fujicco Co. Ltd., one of the leading soy products manufacturers in Japan that produces packages of cooked and seasoned soybeans, natto (fermented soybeans) and soymilk.
Fujicco mainly uses Japanese-grown soybeans although part of its products is made from imported non-GM soybeans from China, the United States and Canada, he said.
"We are trying our best to avoid the contamination in our production lines," he said, adding that the company has equipped itself with testing instrument to examine its food products periodically for GMO traces.
A spokesman from Asahimatsu Foods Co. Ltd., the leading natto and freeze-dried tofu manufacturers in the country, said the company also has concerns over GM soybeans mixed into non-GM soybeans products.
"At the transportation stage (of soybeans), we have asked suppliers to be more cautious in isolating (non-GM soybeans)," the Asahimatsu spokesman said. "At the production stage, we pay very careful attention to maintaining clean facilities which are free from (GMO) contamination."
Asahimatsu is also considering introducing testing instruments, he added.
Meanwhile, an official at the Federation of Japan Natto Manufacturer Cooperative Society said he is not at all worried about non-GM natto (fermented soybeans) being tainted by GM soybeans as he believes its member companies are handling non-GM soybeans properly.
"Our member companies buy imported soybeans certified as GM-free under the IP (Identity-Preserved) handling procedure from trading houses," the official said. "So if genetic traces of GM soybeans were found in natto, it would be the fault of trading houses, not natto makers."
The IP handling scheme, set up by MAFF, regulates the process which isolates imported non-GM crops at various stages between farmers in producing countries and end-users in Japan. This was set up ahead of the labeling requirement scheduled to begin April 1, 2001.
Under the labeling requirement, 24 selected food items, including tofu, cooked soybeans, natto and soymilk, will have to be labeled as either made from GM soybeans or made from soybeans that were not imported under the IP handling process.
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