BEIJING (Reuters) - China's agriculture ministry said it would back new laws on genetically modified (GMO) food labeling "at a suitable time" as it seeks to assuage public concerns over safety, but added that current laws protect consumers.
Beijing has spent billions of dollars researching GMO crops and has said it is aiming for commercialization of the first GMO corn and soybean crops within the next five years.
But despite repeated attempts to reassure consumers over the safety of the technology, the government still faces strong opposition from members of the public, academics and industry, raising questions about how it will introduce new biotech crops to the market.
"Following a safety assessment before reaching the market, GMO food products are as safe as conventional foods," the ministry said in a statement.
The statement came in response to a proposal submitted to China's legislature earlier this year by Zhang Qinghai, chairman of Henan-based noodle to dairy maker Kedi Group, and 14 other parliamentary delegates calling for a separate law regulating the safety of GMO foods.
Doubts over the adequacy of China's GMO regulation have arisen following media reports that some food products are not labeled as containing GMO ingredients.
Greenpeace has said that GMO crops including rice, China's staple food, and corn were being illegally planted in the country and found in foods sold in local supermarkets.
The ministry said GMO foods are already regulated under China's revised food safety law, published last year.
However, it added that it would recommend a law on GMO food safety and a labeling system based on a certain threshold of GMO content "at a suitable time", when it was needed by the market.
The current law does not set a threshold at which food products must be labeled as containing biotech ingredients. Some critics argue that a law based on such a system would encourage better adherence to the rules.
(Reporting by Dominique Patton; Editing by Richard Pullin)