Food standards

The advice sheets below have the latest information on food standards. If you need more advice call 01753 475111 (Enforcement & Regulatory option).

Genetically modified foods

In the guide

This guidance is for England

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created by the transfer of genes from one organism to another, altering the DNA of the host organism in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or combination. One feature of this process is that GM crops can be made to be resistant to certain pesticides, insects and herbicides.

All businesses that supply food direct to the public must inform the public if any of their products contain GM soya or maize. If claims such as 'GM-free' or 'produced from non-GM material' can be substantiated they are currently permitted; however, they are discouraged and could result in a large fine if found to be untrue.

Who has to declare the presence of GMOs in their foods?

All businesses that supply food direct to the public, from supermarkets to fish and chip shops, must inform the public if any of their products contain GM soya or maize. Public service and school canteens, hospitals, HM Prisons, military catering establishments and similar premises are also required to declare the presence of genetically modified ingredients in the same way as commercial premises. This applies whether the food is sold or supplied free.

Do I have to display a sign about GM foods?

The law only requires action if foods you sell do contain GM ingredients. If this does apply, you may inform consumers by various means.

Can fresh vegetables such as corn on the cob or tomatoes be genetically modified?

Yes, possibly. The genetically modified maize (corn) contains a toxin to prevent damage by the corn borer. This will make cobs more attractive and there is no restriction to prevent it being sold as a vegetable. Genetically modified tomatoes have been developed for flavour as well as other properties.

Is it legal to say 'GM-free' or 'produced from non-GM material'?

If such claims can be substantiated, they are currently permitted. However, as many products are exempt from current labelling requirements, as outlined above, best advice is not to make such a statement.

A tolerance of 0.9% is allowed for small quantities of GM contamination in non-GM foods but only for products from sources that are said not to be genetically modified and that have good control systems throughout the supply chain. This tolerance is only applicable to GM products that already have an EU approval. There is no threshold for any GM product that does not have an EU approval in place.

Which additives could be derived from GM crops?

Additives that could be derived from GM crops include the following:

  • E101 and 101a* Riboflavin - a vitamin and colouring agent that can be made by GMOs
  • E150* Caramel - colouring from sugars, which may be from GM maize
  • E153* Carbon black - colouring from burnt vegetable matter
  • E160d Lycopene - a red dye from tomato extracts
  • E322 Lecithin - an emulsifier usually made from soya
  • E415* Xanthan gum - obtained from starch from maize

Others are E270, E306-9, E325-7, E460 (a) & (b), E462-6, E471-9 (b), E570-3, E620-5, E1404, E1410, E1412-4, E1420, E1422, E1440, E1442, and E1450. These functional additives include lactic acid compounds, thickeners and emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, and flavour enhancers. Further potential sources of genetically modified material are corn syrup, glucose syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin, starch and modified starch, flavourings, and processing aids such as enzymes, solvents and oils.

[*No residual DNA or protein could remain in these products, even if the source material was GM. However, consumers wishing to avoid GM foods due to environmental or ethical concerns would still wish to avoid these if derived from GM material. This is another concern regarding GM-free claims.]

What is modified starch?

The description 'modified starch' does not refer to genetic modification. Modified starch is starch that has been altered by physical or chemical treatment to give special properties of value in food processing.


Failure to comply may result in an improvement notice being issued, requiring compliance to be achieved. If it is decided that the improvement notice has not been complied with this is an offence under the Food Safety Act 1990, which carries a maximum penalty of a fine and two years' imprisonment.

If claims that food is 'GM-free' are found to be untrue, the maximum penalty under the Food Safety Act 1990 is a fine

Further reading

The Food Standards Agency website has guidance notes on GM labelling.

A Q&A on the regulation of GMOs in the European Union can be found on the Europa website.

The Europa website also holds the EU register of authorised GMOs.

The European Commission Joint Research Centre website may also be of interest.

See also 'Labelling of GM foods'.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: December 2016

PixelPlease note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.