Tuesday 9 July 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Genetically Modified Food and Feed
[Relevant Documents: Fifth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Genetically Modified Organisms, HC 2001-02 767.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): It is a great pleasure to be in Committee under your chairmanship, Mr Hurst. While opening the debate, I shall refer to the proposals in European Union documents 11496/01 and 11576/01 that relate to genetically modified food and feed, and the traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms. The documents and the issues involved are complex and wide ranging, but the debate will provide a welcome opportunity to reappraise how Europe can best ensure safety and deliver reliable consumer choice in connection with genetically modified food and crops.
The Commission has proposed two regulations. The first would involve a centralised safety assessment system for GM food and feed, with the proposed European food safety authority at the centre of the process. For the first time, specific rules would be introduced for the authorisation of GM animal feed. The existing labelling rules for GM food would also be extended. The proposal is linked closely to a second proposal on traceability and labelling, which aims to create a harmonised European Union system for tracing and identifying genetically modified organisms, including food, feed and seeds, and products derived from them, at all stages of their being placed on the market through the production and distribution chains.
Several EU member states have declared that they will not re-engage in the decision-making process for GM crops and food until regulations on traceability and labelling for GMOs are in place. There is some doubt, however, whether that would unblock the process, but the Commission is presenting the proposals as an attempt to improve consumer information and choice on GMOs. The proposals also have important implications for food production costs and will impact on the EU's trade partners, including developing countries.
Before I deal with the proposals in detail, I shall summarise briefly the existing rules. The main legislation that authorises the placing on the market of genetically modified organisms in the Community is directive 90/220/EC. GMOs are assessed on a case-by-case basis for safety, and decisions are made on whether to grant or refuse an authorisation. For GM goods, the EC novel foods regulation, 258/97, requires
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that they be rigorously assessed for safety before they can be authorised for sale. The current labelling rules require foods to be labelled if they contain genetically modified material, which is novel DNA or protein. That approach, which is both practical and enforceable, is intended to provide consumers with clear choices regarding the food that they eat. No specific Community legislation on the approval and labelling of GM feed exists at present.
I turn now to the European Commission's proposal. I shall address first the GM food and feed proposal, the main elements of which are the safety assessment process, labelling and thresholds for the unintended presence of GM material in non-GM supplies. Under the proposal, the European food safety authority will be responsible for the safety assessment, although it will be able to subcontract an initial assessment to a member state. As I said earlier, this country already has in place a robust safety assessment system for GM food. All applications, whether they originate in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe, are scrutinised in detail at the moment by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. In future, the European food safety authority, which will be at the centre of such a process, can ask member states to carry out that initial assessment.
I come now to labelling, which has probably generated the most extensive debate over the past year. The key point is that the rules proposed by the Commission require all foods produced from GMOs to be labelled, whether or not they differ analytically from conventionally sourced ingredients. At first sight, that would seem to be a step towards greater consumer choice, but detailed consideration of the proposals suggests that that would create real practical difficulties. The Government have serious worries about the enforceability and practicality of that approach because any labelling or documentation claims could not be verified by scientific analysis and could therefore be open to fraud, which may result in the consumer being misled. As the results of chemical analysis of products derived from GMOs would be the same as those for products from non-GMO sources, no scientific analysis could be done to establish the difference.
The Government fully support the intention of increasing consumer choice, but we believe that the best way to achieve that would be to supplement existing rules on GM labelling with a ''GM free'' option. That would enable people who want to avoid all uses of GM technology to do so and would be a much more effective approach.
The explanatory memorandum and the regulatory impact assessment that I provided for the Committee set out four options for dealing with such matters. The first was to continue with the current rules; the second was the ''GM free'' option, which we believe to be the most practical; the third was the Commission's proposals as in the documents; and the fourth was an even more radical option that some Members of the European Parliament would advocateto label not only products derived from GMOs but enzymes and
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processes connected with GMOs, too. In order of how radical they were, that was the spectrum of approaches.
The Commission opted for what we call option Cto extend labelling to goods that are produced from GMOs but that are scientifically no different. We believe that there are real problems with that. Our preferred option was option Bto continue with current rules on labelling and add the ''GM free'' option. That would enable people who want nothing to do with the technology, whether relating to goods produced or goods used in the process of creating other goods, to be confident that they are not choosing GM options. We are not comfortable with the Commission's option, which I am sure hon. Members will debate later.
The third element of the proposal relates to thresholds. Current GM labelling rules include a threshold for the accidental presence of GM material in non-GM supplies. Provided that manufacturers can show that they have made all reasonable efforts to use only non-GM supplies, they are not required to label their product as GM if the level of incidental GM material is below that 1 per cent. threshold. That recognises that non-GM foods may contain tiny amounts of GM material as a result of storage, transportation or handling.
The threshold is a de minimis requirement. It is currently set at 1 per cent., which reflects the capability of current detection methods and the ability of the supply chain to deliver on the threshold. I understand that GMO materials are identified through an amplification of protein in the product. With current technology, going below 1 per cent. would be difficult, especially in the case of highly processed foods. In the case of fairly simple foods, it is sometimes possible to go below that threshold, but in the case of highly processed foods, it is much more difficult.
Last week, the European Parliament voted to reduce the threshold to 0.5 per cent. The Government do not feel that that is a practical possibility at this stage, given the current state of our technology. I understand that no other member state has a regime with a threshold that requires less than 1 per cent. Indeed, thresholds vary from 1 per cent. to 5 per cent. The European Parliament's new proposal would take matters significantly further.
Fourteen GM crops await approval in Europe and have been blocked in the approval process. To try to move that process on, the Commission proposes to include a threshold for GM varieties that await approval in Europe as well as those that have been approved, provided that those crops have undergone a safety assessment undertaken by the Commission's scientific committees.
The Government recognise that zero presence of non-authorised GMOs is not practical given the extent to which GM crops are grown world wide. We have given our support to the European Commission for restarting the approval process for GM crops. We understand why the Commission wants to apply the 1 per cent. threshold to non-approved varieties as well as
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to approved varieties to try to get the approval process moving again, and we are prepared to support it, but we believe that the matter should be kept under review.
The proposal will introduce for the first time specific rules for the approval and labelling of GM animal feed. If a GMO could be used for food and feed processes, the approval would reflect both uses. Under the proposal, the provisions for animal feed closely mirror those for human food, which is an attempt to introduce consistency and harmonisation to the process.
The second proposal relates to traceability and labelling, for which harmonised rules are sought throughout the European Community. The proposal goes beyond the scope of directive 2001/18 because the rules are also applied to products derived from GM sources. Such products are not scientifically or analytically different. They include highly refined maize oil and sugars that are derived from GMOs, which are no different in their highly refined and processed composition from products derived from non-GM sources.
The Chairman: Order. I remind the Minister and hon. Members that it is anticipated that the opening statement should last no more than 10 minutes.