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4.40 p.m.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, before we move to the Statement on genetically modified foods, I should like to take this opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.

Genetically Modified Foods: Safety

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer which has

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been given by my right honourable friend to a Private Notice Question in the other place on genetically modified foods. The Answer is as follows:

    "The Government are fully committed to ensuring the safety of food.

    "All genetically modified foods and food ingredients go through a process of very thorough scrutiny by a committee of experts, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which advises Government and whose remit is to examine all novel foods. They are also scrutinised by equivalent bodies in all other member states, to ensure that no food comes onto the market unless it is safe.

    "This committee, which was established in 1988, has members from universities and research institutes who are experts in their fields and are fully up to date with the latest scientific thinking. There are also two lay members whose respective roles are to advise on ethical issues and see that the experts pay attention to the concerns of the wider public. Since May 1997, it has been taking steps to become increasingly open and now publishes all its agendas, minutes and a note of the outcome of each meeting.

    "The products which have been authorised have all been through this rigorous process.

    "We are also committed to the principle of consumer choice. The Government are determined that all foods containing GM material should be clearly labelled. We are leading the way in Europe in this area by also requiring the provision of information in catering establishments. We are taking steps to ensure that local authorities have all the necessary powers to enforce these requirements.

    "In addition, we are pressing the European Union Commission to bring forward proposals for the labelling of animal feeds as quickly as possible. But choice also means having access to alternatives. That is why we have published a list of 59 companies from which food manufacturers can obtain non-genetically modified soya. We believe that all this adds up to a system in which consumers can have confidence.

    "Much of the recent debate has unhelpfully confused the two issues of safety of food and protection of the environment; and there have been many attempts to generalise from findings in laboratories at the experimental stages.

    "GM is a development which has huge potential to benefit society in a variety of ways and scientists should be allowed to pursue experimental work. It is however important that end products are only put on the market after the most careful scrutiny of their effects on human health.

    "We believe that we have a robust and open system for ensuring that the consumer is fully protected, but that those who wish can choose whether or not to purchase these products.

    "Above all, it is the Government's first priority to ensure that the safety of consumers is fully protected and that will remain the case".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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4.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement on GM food, a subject which has caused such concern to the public. We realise that this is not an easy matter and there are certainly no easy answers, but I wish to ask the Minister two main questions.

Is he aware that apart from the comforting Statement which he has just read, the public's confidence in the safety of food which contains genetically modified ingredients is being damaged day-by-day by the Government's mishandling of the issue and that they have a clear duty to give unequivocal guidance to manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike? Will he say what the Government are doing in respect of the fears about the use of antibiotic resistant marker genes?

Finally, does the Minister share our view that the only way to restore confidence in the safety of food and the technology which may well be very beneficial is to recognise the environmental risks; to continue with and to continue to publish all the research; to monitor progress; to inform the public of all official contacts with commercial interests; and to ensure that all are dealt with in an open and transparent way?

4.47 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and for giving us the current status on genetically modified foods. We on these Benches accept that there are great dangers in playing politics with the issue of food safety. However, we believe that there are legitimate questions about the Government's handling of GM foods.

Environment and food safety are linked in the public's mind, and there are concerns about matters such as scientific research being carried out as regards crop cultivation and its impact on surrounding food crops; ingredients in food; labelling; and the pressure of huge American companies being brought to bear on this Government, the EU and the US Government. We join with consumer and environmental groups and others such as the British Retail Consortium in asking a number of pertinent questions. In particular, will the Government take a clear and precautionary line on GM foods? Will they agree on a five-year freeze on the commercial planting of GM food crops? Will they also ensure that the remit of the Food Standards Agency will cover GM foods? Will they bring forward the EU proposals into UK law earlier than is proposed in the EU as a whole in respect of additives and foodstuffs and in particular in the use of GM foods in processing?

We fully accept the principle of consumer choice, but without adequate labelling it is impossible for the consumer to make an informed choice. Some supermarkets are already taking good steps with their own brands, but without adequate legislation across the board on labelling we do not believe that consumers will be well served. Does the Minister agree?

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Will the Minister review the evidence to the BSE inquiry, in particular the statements made by former chief medical officers about the definition of "safe"? What definition of "safe" is being used by the committee referred to in the Statement?

As regards the segregation of GM foods from other foods, will the Government press the US Government at the highest level to ensure that segregation takes place? As a result of the welter of comments made by current and former chairmen of supermarkets, does the Minister agree with the statement made by Malcolm Walker, the Iceland Group Chairman, who asked why there is such a rush to foist these products on the public when their long-term effects on health and the environment are unknown? Will the Minster reaffirm that the Government fully adopt a precautionary principle as regards the use of GM foods?

4.50 p.m.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, perhaps I may deal with one or two of the deluge of questions. To the noble Baroness opposite I have to say that it takes some chutzpah to accuse this Government of any damage to confidence by mishandling this issue. The Government have done much to secure confidence in order to repair the enormous gap left by the previous administration who did virtually nothing.

We have introduced transparency in the relevant committees. We have appointed lay members to represent the consumer interest and we have required the publication of agendas and minutes. We have introduced labelling for the two main genetically modified foods which are on sale. All the genetically modified foods which are on sale and which are causing some of the fuss now were approved under the previous government. But they did not allow any proper labelling of them. They, alone in Brussels, opposed that labelling. Despite pressure in Brussels, we have managed to secure the proper and clear labelling of those foods. That restores confidence. What went on before damaged it. We are even seeking to extend the labelling to catering. Therefore, the suggestion that we are in any sense responsible really takes my breath away.

There is the issue of animal feed which may contain GM products. We are about to announce the setting up of a committee to look into that and we shall pursue that matter in Brussels. But when the previous government were advised in 1991 to deal with the issue of GMs in animal feed, they refused. In 1992, they announced that they would do so and then did nothing. Therefore, that is not a subject on which the Opposition should speak as loudly as they have done recently.

Some of the damage to confidence comes from scaremongering. We need to take and continue to take a balanced and measured approach to what is a most serious issue. Where there is genuine public concern, we need to make sure that we have adequate and rigorous methods of assessment and the provision of the maximum information to the public. That is what we are attempting to do.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that we take a precautionary line. We put the public health and the safety of the environment at the very top

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of our priorities. The noble Lord referred to the food standards agency. It is clear from the published Bill that that will be responsible for GM foods and it will be advised by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes which deals with that area.

The noble Lord referred to labelling. I agree that that is a central issue. We must deal with it through the European Union. But we are very much ahead of the game there in pressing for the maximum labelling possible. The noble Lord mentioned additives and flavouring. That is very important. We are attempting to achieve European Union action in that regard.

The definition of safety follows the principle of equivalence which the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes applies.

Segregation is an extremely frustrating issue. We cannot achieve segregation of GM and non-GM foods in our imports, especially from the United States. I should point out that when this first became a matter of concern, as I understand it, the previous government did not press the United States' government to do something about that. When we came into power, we looked into that matter but it is too late. We cannot do anything now without risking problems with the World Trade Organisation. We should not be permitted to make that a condition of refusing entry because safety is the only reason permitted in that regard. I hope that that deals with many of the points that were raised.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, is the Minister aware that he is quite right when he says that there has been too much scaremongering on this issue? Is he aware also that many of the matters which he covered in his Statement were repetitions of what appeared in the Select Committee report of your Lordships' House which was published a few weeks ago? In particular, I am thinking of the Select Committee's recommendations about better labelling and segregation.

Will the Minister go a little further than the Statement and recall that the Select Committee report took up and supported a recommendation of the Royal Society that there are shortcomings with regards to testing and monitoring GM foods and that there is a need for an over-arching body to be set up to monitor testing and monitoring and to ensure that it is carried out more efficiently? It would be most helpful if the Government would support that recommendation, which I believe would put a stop to much of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation that there has been.

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