TOKYO, Aug., 3, 2016 - As the U.S. goes, so too does Japan sometimes, and that’s why the new American GMO disclosure law has Japanese soybean oil producers worried.
The USDA is not expected to decide that foods containing soybean oil need to be labeled under the National Disclosure Standard for Bioengineered Foods law that was signed by President Barack Obama on Friday, but the uncertainty has the Japanese industry concerned.
“After World War II, Japan developed by looking to the U.S. as a role model,” said Akira Saito, managing director of the Japan Oilseed Processors Association. “There is a possibility that Japan would adopt a similar law that would require GMO labeling.”
There is a lot at stake for Japanese crushers who buy about 2 million metric tons of soybeans, valued at roughly $1 billion, from the U.S. every year.
Japanese soybean oil production has been on the rise over the past few years and is expected to reach about 445,000 tons this year according to data from the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC). That’s up from 435,000 tons last year and 415,000 tons the year before. None of it currently has to be labeled as a genetically modified product.
And that’s exactly how it should be, said one Japanese soybean crushing executive who asked not to be quoted because of the sensitivity surrounding the issue.
“Japan is watching closely,” said the source, who stressed that consumers in Japan become more concerned when they hear about U.S. concerns over GMOs. And when consumers become more concerned, he said, the industry becomes more concerned.
Japanese crushers are already starting to inquire about the possibility of sourcing non-GMO soybeans for the soybean oil they produce.
But those are comparatively expensive and availability is scarce, said Frank Flider, a soybean industry consultant who spoke to Japanese crushers at seminars held in Osaka and Tokyo this week by USSEC.
Flider said he doesn’t see a major expansion of non-GMO soybeans in the U.S. anytime soon because of the high costs involved with planting and shipping.
Soybeans make up a substantial part of the Japanese diet in foods like tofu, miso and soy sauce. Most of that food is produced from domestically-grown soybeans, but soybean oil used for industrial applications like food processing, baking and frying is mostly made from U.S. sourced soybeans that are produced from genetically modified seeds.
The FDA believes firmly that soybean oil and other highly processed commodities should not have to be labeled for disclosure of genetically modified material under the new law.
“The definition of ‘bioengineering’ … would result in a somewhat narrow scope of coverage,” the FDA said in a June 27 assessment of the bill. “First, in subparagraph A (of the legislation), the phrase ‘that contains genetic material’ will likely mean that many foods from GE sources will not be subject to this bill. For instance, oil made from GE soy would not have any genetic material in it. Likewise, starches and purified proteins would not be covered.”
But it’s not up to the FDA. The USDA will make that decision sometime over the next two years, but Saito believes the department should follow the FDA’s lead and anything else would be unscientific.
“Our basic stance is that labeling needs to be supported by science even though it looks to be tough to accomplish that,” said Saito, who also spoke at the USSEC seminars.
Another Japanese industry executive stressed that the longer it takes USDA to come to a conclusion about disclosure for soybean oil, the more Japanese producers will worry. Just the fact that USDA is even considering it could push Japanese consumers to demand something similar. “People here have an irrational fear of genetic modification,” the source said.
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