Japanese organic foods test positive for GMOs

Discovery angers Japanese consumers and food manufacturers, could have negative impact on U.S. organic soy exports

A Japanese government agency recently tested 76 certified organic soy-based products and detected genetically modified material in 25 of the products. The discovery, which was widely reported in Japan's newspapers, highlights Japanese consumers' continued concerns over GM foods and could negatively impact U.S. exports of organic soy to Japan if the contaminated soybeans are of U.S. origin.

33% of products tested positive

The Center for Food Quality, Labeling and Consumer Services (CFQLCS), which is part of Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) conducted the tests on 47 tofu products and 29 natto fermented soybean products sold in retail stores and produced by 25 manufacturers. The products had been certified by Japanese Agricultural Standard (JAS), which requires that foods labeled as organic not contain GM ingredients. GM material was found in 20 and five natto products. GM material was undetectable in seven other natto products because the modified DNA was broken down in the fermentation process.

It was not immediately known what levels of contamination were detected in the products. One unidentified MAFF source said the tests reported qualitative results, meaning a "yes or no" answer regarding contamination. On the other hand, a spokesman from a Japan-based GMO testing lab said contamination levels were 0.1 percent and below, which is considered very low.

CFQLCS is inspecting the manufacturing facilities that produced the contaminated products. If CFQLCS deems the contamination occurred by willful or gross negligence, charges may be filed against the manufacturer under JAS Law. CFQLCS routinely tests other food items for GMO contamination, including corn grits, corn starch, miso, and other soy products

Contaminated sources not determined

Names of the manufacturers and contaminated products have not yet been disclosed by CFQLCS. In addition, no details were given about the raw material sources for the contaminated products though Brazil, China, and the United States are considered the most likely sources since these countries supply Japan with organic soybeans, according to industry experts. According to The Asahi Shimbun, CFQLCS plans to further investigate the soybean sources and determine how the contamination occurred in production. Determining the origin should not be difficult since organic certification provides a paper trail back to the supplier. The GMO testing lab source believes the soybeans came from the United States.

Impact on U.S. exports

Nick Arakawa, manager, Tomen America, Inc., a U.S.-based exporter of soybeans to Japan, says the discovery could negatively impact demand for organic soy products in Japan. "The Japanese market, including consumers and manufacturers, are very nervous about the GMO issue," says Arakawa. "Demand for JAS certified organic products will shrink."

U.S. exporters of organic soybeans said the news does not bode well for their businesses. "It will have a big impact on us and it is upsetting," says Gary Bogenrief, president, ProfiSeed International, Inc.

"There will be an impact, but how it translates in dollars and cents we don't know," says Bob Turnbull, marketing director at Heartland Organic Marketing Co-op.

Bogenrief and other exporters say the discovery is particularly troubling because they do their best to eliminate GMOs. "We test all organic soybeans, and we've never had any test positive," says Bogenrief. "It makes you wonder how it happened."

"Somebody wasn't very careful," says Mark Vollmar, president, Organic Bean and Grain. "Organic companies should be able to provide a non-GMO product."

"Our products should go over there clean and clear," says Dick Vegors, international marketing manager of grains and grain co-products at the Iowa Department of Economic Development. "Any certified organic exporter is trying to assure the importer that it is certified organic and is providing GMO test results."

If the contamination proves to come from U.S. soybeans it will further damage America's reputation as a supplier of non-GMO. "I've heard Japanese people say that the U.S. is not a reliable supplier of non-GMO," says Tim Walter, president, Dakota Farms International.

Another exporter says Japanese merchandisers are not happy with U.S. suppliers who say they can deliver 100 percent non-GM products, but then don't meet the expectations.

Most U.S. exporters agree that providing 100 percent non-GMO is unrealistic. "If our buyers want a 100 percent guarantee of non-GMO, we can't give it," says Dunn. "There has to be a reasonable tolerance and education about the need for one."

According to American Soybean Association (ASA) estimates, organic soybeans account for a small percentage of total U.S. exports of food-grade soybeans to Japan, which will reach about 659,000 metric tons this year. "The organic market is tiny; it's not even listed on the analysis," says Chiaki Terada, food soybean specialist at ASA's Japan office. Food-grade soybean imports from the U.S. are also considered to be non-GMO. Arakawa doesn't think the contamination will affect these imports.

Exporters say Japan is buying more organic soybeans from China because of GMO concerns with U.S. beans. "Japan is buying from China, even though Chinese beans aren't as good," says Ron Doetch, programs manager, Quality Traders. Chinese soybeans also cost less.

Japanese industry reaction

The contamination problem is causing repercussions in the Japanese food industry, according to Norman Makino, director of the Iowa Department of Economic Development's Japanese office. Manufacturers of natto soybean products were said to be particularly annoyed by the report since natto beans are considered to be non-GMO varieties. Some Japanese retailers may stop selling organic soyfoods, and some large Japanese food manufacturers have stopped making organic products due to the problem. Manufacturers are not expected to switch to domestic organic soybeans because there have been GMO contamination problems with these as well. Manufacturers may switch labeling their products from organic to non-GMO, since JAS standards allow trace amounts of contamination in products labeled non-GMO.
(October 2002)