Proponents of mandatory labeling of GMOs in the U.S. often make claims to the effect that "Come on! Even China requires labeling!" (e.g., see here, here, or here for just a few examples). The implication is that we must not, heaven forbid, fall behind China in our regulatory regime!?!
How accurate is this characterization? It is true that China has a labeling law on the books. But, does that have any implication for what actually happens on the ground? Here is one description of what happens in China, published in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law:
Almost ten years after the enactment of the MMAGL [Management Measures on Agro-GMOs Labeling], the status of enforcement is far from satisfying. Despite the mandatory GM food labeling requirements, not all GM foods are labeled, and there is a lack of standardization among GM food and GMO-free food labeling in China’s food market. Even when food products have GM food labeling, the labels are not clearly visible. In addition to the enforcement issues, the rulemaking is outdated. The very narrowly defined first batch of products under the MMAGL is insufficient to cover the broad range of GM food in the market.
Food with GM soybeans is one example. In 2007, China imported 37.8 million metric tons of soybeans, and the United States, Brazil and Argentina accounted for thirty-six, thirty-three and twenty-nine percent, respectively. “The United States (85%) and Argentina (98%) produce almost exclusively GM soybeans.” In 2007, sixty-four percent of Brazil’s soybean crop was GM soybeans. Therefore, a large percentage of soybeans in China’s market are imported GM soybeans. A market survey report conducted in Tianjin, China in 2008, however, revealed that none of the soybeans or soybean powder had GM food labeling. The lack of GM food labeling for soybeans or soybean powder in the market reveals insufficient compliance with the MMAGL.
Various reasons exist behind the lack of compliance and enforcement of the MMAGL. One of the most important is the enforceability of the legislation itself. There are several issues in terms of the enforceability in the rulemaking. First, the zero percent tolerance without a reasonable adventitious presence threshold is both unrealistic and misleading.
I’d be careful about holding up China as some sort of example of what would happen in the US if mandatory GMO labeling were to pass.