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Genetically Modified Foods

5. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): What measures he is taking to ensure that consumers have adequate information on genetically modified foods. [67800]

6. Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): When he plans to meet the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes to discuss genetically modified food. [67801]

8. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): What discussions he has had with the food industry in relation to genetically modified foods. [67803]

10. Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): What discussions he has had about compulsory insurance schemes to cover genetically modified products. [67805]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): I am aware from on-going meetings with the food industry, and having met the ACNFP, that all GM foods marketed in the United Kingdom receive a thorough safety assessment and are required to be clearly labelled in accordance with EC legislation. I have not had any discussions about compulsory insurance schemes to cover GM products.

Judy Mallaber: I congratulate the Minister on tackling the labelling issue, but does he agree that that must be combined with ensuring that consumers have access to GM-free foods? Will he commit himself to ensuring the greatest possible openness on this and other food policy issues? Does he share the concern that I felt, when I visited the BSE inquiry with a constituent of mine whose son died of CJD, that the successive tragedies relating to the food industry must have some connection with the culture of secrecy that I saw displayed in that inquiry, which we saw with the previous Government?

Mr. Rooker: To take my hon. Friend's final point first, the culture, in terms of transparency and openness as opposed to secrecy, changed in May 1997. In the brief time that I had to reply to yesterday's debate, I gave examples of what we have done in that regard, including putting non-scientific lay members on all the advisory committees, publishing the minutes and the agendas of all the scientific committees, being open about labelling, and publishing the brand names of our chemical surveillance, veterinary medicine and pesticides residues programmes. The culture has changed dramatically. We will pursue with the EU the gaps in the labelling provision for GM foods relating to additives and flavourings, which I mentioned yesterday.

Ms Walley: My hon. Friend is doing a brilliant job and has the confidence of Labour Members in the work that

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he is doing. In relation to the ACNFP, is he aware that one particular batch of yellow Apache tortilla chips has been withdrawn because of suspected GM contamination? Does he intend, as part of future assessments, that the ACNFP will test for cross-pollination as part of its assessment for the authorisation of novel foods?

Mr. Rooker: Cross-pollination is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' regulatory process under the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. No crop is grown in Britain, whether genetically modified or otherwise, unless it has been approved by another Government Department, not this Ministry, and it is important that that separation continues.

I am not aware of the individual case to which my hon. Friend refers. Only four products have been approved in Britain and have gone through the regulatory process governed by the ACNFP, and they are the genetically modified tomato paste, the vegetarian cheese and the soya and maize.

Mr. Miller: Did my hon. Friend notice the contradiction from Conservative Members yesterday who originally resisted the labelling of GM foods and now seem to be on the offensive? Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in the programme to bring about greater transparency and choice for the consumer, so that the consumer can choose, he will ensure that his Department does not suggest to the consumer that there is risk? As he has just said, consumers have a high level of protection in the programme, and what we need to ensure is that the consumer has choice.

Mr. Rooker: The consumer has choice in two ways, and they are both necessary. This covers a point that I neglected to make to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley): labelling is crucial, but, unless there is an alternative product, there cannot be any of the choice that is so crucial. On the initiative of the Government and of the Department, and as a result of discussions that we had a year ago, we published a list of 59 suppliers of GM-free maize and soya--they are mainly from the areas in which it is grown, such as Canada and the United States, although there are some suppliers in Holland--so that British food manufacturers and producers know where to go for GM-free supplies.

Obviously we require also, through the European Union, a de minimis level so that there is a percentage under which a product can be properly qualified as non-GM. False allegations are made by some food manufacturers, who claim that they are supplying GM-free food when their own contracts with suppliers allows up to 1 per cent. GM food.

Mr. Simpson: I congratulate the Minister on supporting the introduction of regulations in respect of GM products, which the Tories always blocked or refused to support. Will he consider three possible extensions of that? First, will he consider notifying retailers, whether they are in this place or any other, that they, too, will be included in the chain of product liability, in the way that retailers are in relation to beef on the bone? Will he also consider the possibility of attaching an obligation to have full public insurance indemnification at the point of product licensing?

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Finally, will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will not enter into any mutual recognition agreement with the United States giving access to United Kingdom markets to GM products that have come through licensing processes less stringent than those that apply in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rooker: The answer to my hon. Friend's last question is yes. Nothing will be put on sale in this country unless it has gone through the regulatory process that we carry out ourselves, in conjunction with our European Union partners. It simply will not be possible for a third country, such as the United States, to supply foods to member states of the EU--whether this country or any other--unless those foods have been approved by regulatory processes in this country and the EU.

All food retailers are liable for what they sell, under the Food Safety Act 1990. It has got to be safe; the liability is clear, and it is no different for GM foods. As I made clear in the debate yesterday, under common law, the firm holding the marketing consent for the GM crop can be held liable in law for any damages arising from, or ill effects attributed to, that crop. That will be extended in due course, under the product liability to primary agricultural producers under the European Commission Green Paper on food law.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister says that labelling is crucial in respect of GM products. He will remember that the second of the three options offered to him by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee regarding beef on the bone was to label beef on the bone as potentially harmful to human beings. Why has he chosen the most extreme option offered to him by SEAC while simultaneously choosing to ignore the good advice given to him by English Nature, which said that GM foods may be harmful and therefore there should be a moratorium? Why does he believe SEAC while choosing to ignore English Nature?

Mr. Rooker: First, English Nature has not said anything whatever about GM foods being harmful. The answer to the rest of the question can wait until 12.30.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I ask my question in all seriousness, because constituents are writing to me about this issue. In respect of the Minister's Department, the Government have suggested that they want to separate the producers of food from such Departments as the Department of Trade and Industry, which looks after industry retailers. How are the responsibilities of Lord Sainsbury being separated, because he is in charge of the Government's science policy? We rely on scientists to give proper advice to the Government, but he clearly has interests--which he has fully declared--in developing and selling GM foods. In respect of those responsibilities, can the Minister reassure the House that it will be clear to my constituents that the Government are being even-handed?

Mr. Rooker: I hope that I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that. My noble Friend has made his position absolutely clear, but he is in no way involved in the regulatory process in decisions relating to novel foods. Clearly, the Government--[Interruption.] No, because the Department--and, in due course, the Food Standards

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Agency--is responsible. We can completely separate sponsorship of the industry and producers from consumer interests.

The issues of biodiversity and biotechnology involve more than one Department. Obviously, the Department of Health has an interest, as has the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We have established a new Cabinet Committee so that joined-up decisions can be made across government. As for food regulations, to which the question specifically relates, my noble Friend is in no way involved in that part of Government activity.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): Will the Minister note farmers' concern about the development of genetically modified crops and foods, which they believe is being driven by multinational chemical companies? Will he impose a five-year moratorium to ensure that public safety is not at risk?

Mr. Rooker: The best way in which I can answer that question--I am not playing with words--is by saying that there is a moratorium on a free-for-all in regard to the planting of such crops. That will not happen: farmers and companies will not be free to plant what they like, where they like. I made that clear yesterday, and I do so again now.

Under the guidelines that will be introduced under the final proposals of SCIMAC, the supply chain initiative on modified agricultural crops--when we have them--there will be controlled introduction and management of GM crops. The planting of each crop will depend on where the next is planted; it will not take place in isolation. It will not be possible for hundreds of acres to be planted willy-nilly, with no respect for what is being planted elsewhere--whether it is genetically modified, or an ordinary crop. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman that there will be considerable control over planting.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Does the Minister understand what English Nature said? It said that the large-scale introduction of genetically modified crops into a small and crowded country such as Britain could have serious environmental consequences. In view of that advice, why will he not do as English Nature suggests, and allow the research for which the Government are paying to be completed before he starts authorising the commercial development of GM crops? It would be prudent to allow a short period during which the research could be studied, before deciding how safely the commercial release could take place.

Mr. Rooker: That is exactly what is being done. The hon. Gentleman is right: in this country, we grow our food in the countryside, whereas farmers in the United States grow their food on the prairies. In northern Europe--the rest of the European Union is virtually the same in this regard--we must be particularly vigilant in protecting the environment and biodiversity. That is why we have these controls. The same point was made by both the Minister for the Environment and me when we gave evidence to the Select Committee in the other place.

We have assessed English Nature's views. So far, we have been given no scientific reason why planting should not take place, provided that the final approvals are given.

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There is currently no commercial planting of GM crops in this country, and, if it happens, it is unlikely to happen before late autumn this year.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): I welcome my hon. Friend's assurances. Will he also assure us that the current labelling discussions will include the subject of animal feedstuffs? There are fears that there could be a repetition of the BSE problem, and that farmers will claim that they did not know what was in the feedstuffs. It is important for farmers to be able to reassure the ultimate consumers--ourselves--that what we are eating does not contain GM foods, should they choose to do so. Farmers must be able to choose whether to incorporate GMOs in animal feedstuffs.

Mr. Rooker: That is an important point. Back in 1992, a committee headed by Professor Lamming suggested the establishment of a special independent advisory committee dealing with animal feedstuffs. The previous Government accepted that recommendation, but did nothing about it. Such a committee is now being set up, and we hope to announce the appointment of a chairman before Easter.

If hon. Members refer to columns 691 and 692 of yesterday's Hansard, they will see that, in response to a question from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I published in full a background note that I had received concerning genetically modified crops. I am sure that the note will be of interest both to the House and to the companies mentioned in it.

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