Genetically Modified Food and Feed

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Ms Blears: Thank you, Mr. Hurst.

Our main concern is that labelling systems should work in practice. We also want to ensure that the process fits in with international developments. The Cartegena protocol on biosafety is important, and the impact on developing countries is a matter of concern.

I have tried to set out the views of the Government, the stakeholders and the European Commission. We think that measures should be practical, proportionate and enforceable, but, as they stand, we do not consider that they are in some respects.

The Chairman: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for hon. Members to ask several questions.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We have four areas of concern, but I shall start with the issue of enforcement. The European Parliament has voted for an even more draconian set of measures than the worst-case scenario that the Minister outlined. Such measures include full traceability of foods derived from GM crops, including their ingredients. What is the Minister's view of that in terms of enforcement and the cost to businesses? Her documents refer to 600,000 affected businesses and a maximum cost to them of about £1.6 billion. However, if the European Parliament measures were enforced, surely the figures would be greater.

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct: it is estimated that 600,000 food businesses will be affected. Half of those are in the catering sector and many businesses are fairly small scale, such those in the

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bakery industry. That industry is likely to be among the most affected, and the Government have concerns about that.

The cost of compliance with the European Commission's proposals is set out in the regulatory impact assessment that I provided for the Committee. The estimated current cost of labelling is about £96 million. The GM-free option, which the Government believe could help to meet the requirements of consumer choice, would cost £258 million and the Commission's proposals would cost £725 million. Those costs are for labelling rather than enforcement.

I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment included a section in his regulatory impact assessment that addressed enforcement specifically, and the total cost of enforcement, including such things as testing and sampling, would be about £6.3 million. Clearly, the impact would be considerable. The issue is about not only enforcement, but consumer confidence. There is little point having regulations unless enforcement is effectively carried out and consumers are assured of proper compliance with the regulations. The Government share the hon. Gentleman's worries.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): In five years' experience of serving on European Standing Committees, this is the first time that the European Parliament has beaten us to it by taking a view before negotiations take place. How will that affect negotiations from this point, or do we all just ignore the European Parliament?

Ms Blears: I would not dream of ignoring the European Parliament. We must work properly and in harmony with our partners in Europe. We have time between the European Parliament's First Reading and the 600 amendments that were discussed last week, and its Second Reading during which we can discuss the issues further.

Many issues are emerging among our European colleagues. I understand that the Netherlands carried out a study that raised serious concerns about practicality, enforcement and whether the provisions are proportionate. The Netherlands shares several of this Government's concerns. We should not ignore the European Parliament but explore the areas on which there are genuine and legitimate concerns.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): The Minister said that the Government's preferred term is ''GM free''. The National Farmers' Union argues that GM free should mean GM free. What representations has she received on the use of those words, and what legal advice has been received on the enforceability of using the words ''GM free'' if they clearly do not mean GM free?

Ms Blears: This is at the heart of the issue of whether we have products that are labelled ''GM'' to show that they contain genetically modified ingredients, whether products are not labelled at all and have a 1 per cent. threshold for GM ingredients, or whether they are

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labelled to say ''This is GM free.'' If we were to use the latter option, the product would have to have a fairly short supply chain so that the identity of all the goods in that chain could be traced. The term would have to apply to processes as well as GM products. For example, it would have to apply to any enzymes used; I understand that a GM enzyme is now commonly used in the production of most hard cheeses. There are other enzymes and processes that could not be used if a product were to be defined as completely GM free.

The Government are promoting that option, because that would be a way of providing a self-contained solution for those who have real antipathy towards genetic modification, for whatever reason, without throwing all the costs and enforceability on to the whole range of foods. Specific products that were properly and totally GM free, with proper traceability and a short supply chain, could be produced. That traceability would also have to apply to GM-free products that used milk, meat and eggs, so that it could be ensured that the animals from which they came had not been fed GM food. If there were a very short supply chain, that would be possible.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am grateful to have the opportunity to ask some questions, particularly as I am not a member of the Committee. I suppose I would count myself as a 1 per cent. adventitious contamination to the debate.

What thought was given to the compatibility of the Government's proposal for ''GM-free'' labelling with our earlier claims that we should pursue the principle that the polluter pays? One of the reservations expressed in farming communities about following through the proposals on liability is that, under the current proposals, the only people who would be liable are those who claim that they attempted to provide clean produce that was free from contamination. The only groups that would be free from liability are those that contaminate. In a sense, the reverse approach to that taken in the European Parliament would be the only one that would genuinely address the principle that the polluter pays.

Ms Blears: It is important to try to ensure that we provide for those people who have expressed the clear view that they want no connection with not only GM organisms in food or feed, but also products derived from GM organisms, and the processes connected with them. We do not want to apply what I think I referred to as a radical—rather than draconian—option to the whole food and feed supply chain.

At the moment, the only leeway that people have is the 1 per cent. threshold. If a producer were to ''pollute'' food over and above the threshold, to use that rather pejorative language, the produce would have to be properly labelled. Consumers would have access to enough of that information to make a properly informed choice.

The current 1 per cent. threshold is the lowest that is possible, given the technology that is available to us to detect it if it comes as part of a large shipment of a crop such as maize, rape or soya. However, where there are products with a short supply chain—where products

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are not being sourced from, for example, developing countries, and where it is possible to provide that sort of integrity for the product—we ought to look at that option. It has not yet been fully worked up; it will need to be developed further, if it is going to prove an attractive option in some of the negotiations that we will have with our partners in the coming few months, but it is the Government's preferred approach.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): For clarity, I should remind the Committee of an entry in my declaration of interests. I am a chairman of a small food industry consultancy, but it does not have any direct relationship with genetically modified crops, products or anything else.

Article 3 of regulation 2001/0180 contains a series of definitions, but I cannot find a definition of what is a product, which first appears in paragraph 5. Can the Minister tell me what is the definition of a product, within the terms of this directive?

Ms Blears: My current understanding is that it is a product that is derived from a process involving GMOs. The two examples that I have given refer to a product that is produced from the actual material—where oilseed rape is transferred into oil, or maize is transferred into maize oil, and where there is sugar that is a product of a GM organism. Those are the only two examples that I have at the moment. I understand that such a product is one that has been produced by a process that becomes highly refined, and that, therefore, its chemical and scientific make-up is no different from that of the same type of highly refined product that is produced from a non-GMO material. If I can provide the right hon. Gentleman with further details, I will do so.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Can the Minister clarify the situation that will come into existence if and when these changes go through? How will they impact on the national seed list? I am particularly interested in how the appeal process might be affected. If my reading of this is correct, we are narrowing—at least—this country's options with regard to its ability to inquire into the way in which a particular new seed comes on to the market. I would be interested to hear how this measure might further narrow someone's ability to appeal against the registration of a new seed.

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Prepared 9 July 2002