Calls to abolish Brazil's mandatory GMO logo despite limited awareness

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Brazil's mandatory GMO label uses the letter T to warn consumers about the presence of 'transgênicos' in food.  © Senado Federal
Brazil's mandatory GMO label uses the letter T to warn consumers about the presence of 'transgênicos' in food. © Senado Federal

Related tags: GMO, labeling, Food safety

Brazil’s GMO logo has been mandatory since 2003 but three-quarters of Brazilians do not recognize it, according to a recent study. Should it be removed - as a draft law currently proposes - or redesigned?

In 2003, Brazilian policymakers introduced a regulation that requires manufacturers of both packaged products and bulk foods containing more than 1% GM ingredients or derivatives to be labeled as such. 

The products must bear a yellow, triangle-shaped symbol with the letter T. The law also requires that food and ingredients produced from animals fed with GM feed is labeled.

Genetically modified crops are hugely important to Brazil’s food system and its economy in general. It is the second-largest producer of GM crops in the world, with everyday staples such as maize and soy and their derivative products like maize flour or soybean oil – accounting for a large proportion.

Despite this prevalence, a recent study conducted by researchers from the State University of Campinas found that almost three-quarters (74.6%) did not recognize the mandatory symbol.

The researchers questioned 224 consumers from different socio-economic backgrounds in São Paulo state, asking them how it impacts their trust, perceived risk and quality, and willingness to buy.

Younger participants, those with a higher education level or those concerned about GM foods were more likely to recognize the symbol however many of those who could identify the symbol said they found it “difficult to interpret​”.

“These results indicate that although the Brazilian GM food label policy is aligned with similar policies in developed countries, it has been implemented without an adequate disclosure,” ​wrote the researchers. “Our findings indicate that in order to improve the effectiveness of this food policy, the Brazilian Ministry of Health should invest in advertising the labels, targeting the elderly and individuals with lower levels of education."​ 

Draft law to remove yellow logo advances

The country’s GM logo has attracted criticism of scaremongering - detractors say it looks too similar to the hazardous waste symbol - and a 2015 draft law that proposed removing the logo has been passed by several commissions and is due to be voted on in a plenary session in the Senate. 

According to the draft regulation, manufacturers would still have to inform consumers about the presence of GM ingredients if greater than 1% with the disclosure: ‘may contain transgenic [ingredient]’.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), soy production was valued at BR$120 billion and maize production at BR$40 billion in 2018, corresponding to approximately 50% of all national agricultural production.

A text stating the presence of GMOs is surely more transparent and easier to understand​,” Lúcia de Souza, a biotech consultant who was vice-president of the Brazilian National Biosafety Association (ANBio) for over 10 years, wrote on the Cornell Alliance for Science website.

Supporters of the draft law, argue that the current yellow warning logo negatively impacts the product in consumers' eyes. However, only 6% of consumers surveyed in this study identified the symbol as an indication of something dangerous, “thereby disproving the arguments of the draft law​”, write the researchers of this study.

Despite not knowing the symbol, a majority of the consumers interviewed (58.5%) believed that GM foods posed health risks and felt “partially uncomfortable​” eating them due to possible health concerns. Meanwhile, of the 57 individuals who did recognize the logo, almost half (47.4%) said they used it as a deciding factor when buying food.

Researchers: 'Labeling does not affect purchasing patterns'

The researchers therefore see a utility in keeping the logo on product packaging.

“The labeling does not affect, or only slightly affects, the consumer's purchasing patterns,” ​they write. “However, mandatory labeling guarantees the right to information for all consumers.

“Although it is used by few people, the label, especially in GM foods, is the main vehicle of information and serves as a means to ensure consumer safety by allowing for the tracking and post-marketing control of food products, thus allowing for the quality control of food products.”

Despite the prevalence of GM agriculture in Brazil and this recent legislative proposal, this is the first study to evaluate the knowledge and perceptions of Brazilian consumers on the mandatory logo, according to the scientists.

They call for future studies to survey attitudes in less developed regions of Brazil and to evaluate other issues impacting willingness to buy, such as environmental concerns.

Source: Food Research International

“The mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in Brazil: Consumer’s knowledge, trust, and risk perception”

Available online ahead of print, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2020.109053

Authors: M. Piton Hakima, L. D'Avoglio Zanettaa, et al.

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