Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Consumers' Association


  1. Consumers' Association (CA), publishers of Which?, Health Which? and other consumer magazines and books is an independent consumer organisation with around 750,000 members. We have closely followed the development and marketing of genetically modified foods and have included reports and updates on developments in our magazines. More recently, we published a policy report "Gene Cuisine—a consumer agenda for genetically modified foods" (not printed) which brought together our consumer research on consumer attitudes and set out our policy on controls relating to genetically modified foods.


  2. Genetic modification has the potential to offer consumers benefits. This may be in terms of food that is a better quality, tastes better, or has a higher nutritional value, for example. However, genetic modification is a new technology that raises moral and ethical concerns. Although comparisons are often made with traditional plant breeding, genetic modification can take place over a much faster timescale. It also presents the possibility of gene transfer between species and this is already taking place, for example, genes from bacteria are being used in plants. Genes from fish have also been inserted into fish in order to make them withstand colder temperatures. The technology also offers the possibility of using human genes in food production.

  3. In view of the progress that has already been made in a relatively short space of time, and the likelihood that genetic modification will transform our food supply, it is important to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place and that consumers can choose whether to accept or reject it as part of their diets.


  The appropriateness and efficacy of current regulation of:

(a) Research

  4. Much of the research relating to genetic modification has advanced before we have had the necessary debate about the direction that it should take. Genetic modification of animals is now, for example, already progressing but before there has been sufficient research into consumer acceptance. This will pose many dilemmas: for example, are genetically modified disease-resistant animals preferable to contamination with food poisoning bacteria, or is consumer concern about genetic modification and animal welfare too strong to ever make them acceptable?

(b) Release into the environment

  5. In its 1993 Strategy for Sustainable Development, the Government stated that it would adopt "a precautionary approach to modern biotechnology because the lack of experience meant that it was not possible to predict the risks to humans and the environment". We strongly support this approach.

  Our concerns about possible side-effects of genetic modification are set out in Gene Cuisine pages 20-26.

  6. Release of genetically modified organisms into the environment are covered by Directive 90/220 which is currently under review. The Directive is based on a case by case approach to approval which fails to take account of the broader impact as many crops are grown and a variety of genetically modified foods are consumed. As it currently stands, there is also no provision for long-term monitoring of the health or environmental impact of genetically modified crops. We also have concerns that as the Directive is based on the principle of substantial equivalence, where a new release is assessed in relation to any existing equivalent, it does not fully acknowledge the potential for unintended and unpredictable side-effects. In addition, the Directive fails to provide clear guidance for risk assessment which has resulted in inconsistent risk assessment across the European Union. It is essential that comprehensive and consistent risk assessments are carried out throughout Europe to ensure that we are guaranteed the same safeguards wherever a release is given approval.

  7. A recent report by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions demonstrated inadequate management of releases and breaches of consent. In one case, a 400m isolation distance between a release of genetically modified oilseed rape and other oilseed rape had been reduced to 2.5m. It is essential that the conditions upon which consent is given are effectively enforced.

  8. The Commission's proposed amendments to the Directive make provision for monitoring of genetically modified crops following approval with a requirement for reassessment after seven years which we welcome. However, we are concerned that great care needs to be taken if a simplified procedure for approval of some genetically modified organisms is introduced as the Commission also proposes. Whilst we appreciate that Europe needs to remain competitive within the world market, it is important to ensure that "fast track procedures" do not reduce safeguards for consumers. In the longer term, both consumers and industry could suffer as a consequence.

(c) Novel foods and their labelling

  9. Genetically modified foods have been introduced on to the UK market before there has been agreement over labelling requirements at a European level. Prior to the introduction of the EU regulation on novel foods and novel food ingredients, approval of genetically modified foods was carried out on a voluntary basis. Since the introduction of the novel foods regulation, approval has been necessary prior to marketing which we have welcomed.

  10. Our outstanding concerns relating to this approval process can be summarised as follows:

    —  the legislation includes no requirement for long-term monitoring of genetically modified foods, post marketing;

  We are concerned that as this technology is new it needs to be closely monitored to ensure that there are not any unexpected, unintended consequences. These foods are assessed and introduced on a case-by-case basis, and the consequences of a significant number of products needs to be taken into account. As well as possible safety concerns, for example, the introduction of an allergen or a toxin, nutritional implications need to be considered as these foods will have an enormous impact on our diets.

  In order to ensure that the impact of genetically modified foods and ingredients can be effectively monitored, it is essential that they can be traced throughout the food chain. If a problem were to be identified with a product post-marketing, it would be essential that it could be traced and affected products withdrawn if necessary. Our concerns about the failure to segregate genetically modified crops are discussed below.

    —  the legislation makes no provision for processing aids;

  Genetically modified processing aids are already widely used. Although many do not remain in the final product, it is still possible that they could result in an unintended change to the product. We therefore consider that they should be included within the approval process and have welcomed the proposal in the EU Green Paper on General Principles of Food Law in the European Union that there should be European legislation to cover processing aids.

    —  different approaches to risk assessment can be used within different Member States and within different scientific committees;

  As we emphasised in relation to the release of genetically modified organisms, there is a need for clear guidance to ensure that a consistent approach to risk assessment is adopted throughout the European Union.

  One example that illustrates how different committees can reach different conclusions about the same product is the approval of the Ciba-Geigy's (now Novartis) genetically modified maize. This maize contained an antibiotic resistant marker gene. As a result, the UK's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) decided that it could not approve the maize if it was used unprocessed and there was a "very low, but finite" risk of this antibiotic-resistance being passed on to bacteria in the food chain. However, the EU's expert advisory committees (Scientific Committee for Food and Scientific Committee for Animal Nutrition) approved the unprocessed maize for use within Europe, overriding the ACNFP.

  This demonstrates different characterisations of risk between different Committees, and also highlights how the decision of a Committee is dependent upon the specialist advice available to it. Whilst the ACNFP has a consumer representative, this is not the case with the EU's advisory committees.

    —  consumers need to have greater involvement in the approval process.

  Genetic modification will potentially have a huge impact on our food supply. However, this development has progressed before we have had adequate public debate about its wider consequences and acceptability. A consensus conference was held by the Science Museum in 1994, but since then developments have progressed, while many consumers still remain in the dark.

  11. Genetic modification illustrates the problems in managing risks where there is still scientific uncertainty. Products are approved on a case-by-case basis based on substantial equivalence. However, as it is increasingly acknowledged, there are limitations to our scientific knowledge and therefore we do not always know what we do not know. Although scientific advice is an essential part of decision-making, it does have limitations. As the example of the maize demonstrates, when dealing with complex, new technologies, we are often relying on expert judgment. The scientific evidence is not always sufficiently developed to be the sole basis for decisions.

  12. It is essential that ways of ensuring a more socially acceptable level of risk are also explored. Interested parties, including consumers, need to be involved in the decision process as early as possible. This will help increase the robustness of the decisions that are made. It is important that the Government experiments with methods for ensuring greater public participation within the risk analysis process.


  13. The failure to provide consumers with clear, comprehensive information about genetic modification is indicative of the limitations of the current approach to assessing new technologies. Consumers were not involved sufficiently early in the process. This has meant that products arrived on the shelves and now we are trying to work out the best way to allow consumers to make an informed choice.

  14. Our research which is included in Gene Cuisine [not printed] shows that consumers do have concerns about genetic modification and want to have clear information to enable them to make an informed choice about whether or not to accept genetically modified foods.

  15. The reasons why labelling is necessary are often confused, but we consider that it is essential on the following grounds:

    —  labelling should not be a substitute for safety—safety of products should be assured at the approval stage;

    —  this is a new technology and consumers have a fundamental right to choose whether to eat food produced using genetic modification. This principle was acknowledged when irradiated foods, for example, were introduced on to the market;

    —  for many consumers, concerns relate to ethical and environmental issues as well as a perception that it is "not natural". BSE has also heightened concern about potential unintended consequences of food processing; and

    —  in view of these fundamental concerns, consumers need to be given information that is comprehensive. Although scientists may consider that a product is "substantially equivalent" if no genetic modification can be detected at the final stage, consumers do not necessarily make this distinction.

  16. Although we supported the introduction of legislation covering genetically modified foods when the novel foods regulation was agreed, and we did at last have legislation, we expressed concern about the lack of clarity of the labelling provisions.

  17. The Government has acknowledged the rationale behind consumer demand for clear labelling, but unfortunately, the whole issue has been complicated by the failure to segregate genetically modified crops from standard varieties when they are harvested in the US. This has meant in the case of soya, which is widely used in approximately 60 per cent of processed foods, consumers have not had any real choice about whether or not to accept genetic modification. Whereas it would normally be left up to consumer demand to determine the use of new developments in the food chain, this has not been the case with genetically modified foods. Products have been put on to supermarket shelves whether or not there is demand. Rather than selling products on their own merits, as was the intention when Zeneca's tomato puree was labelled and put on sale in Sainsbury's and Safeway in February 1996, we have been given no choice with genetically modified soya and maize.

  18. In light of this problem and the failure of UK supermarkets to secure segregation, a proposal for labelling of genetically modified soya and maize has been agreed by the European Union. Although progress was made in that "may contain" labelling was dropped form the proposal, it remains flawed and does not give consumers the degree of choice that our research shows they consider necessary.

    —  The regulation is based on the idea that you only need to label if the protein or DNA can still be detected in the final product, but test methods are still under development. The sensitivity of these methods may be improved after the legislation has been introduced and therefore they are not a firm basis for labelling requirements.

    —  A number of products produced from genetically modified soya and maize will not have to be labelled. This will include soya and lecithin where the DNA or protein can not be detected, and also products where processing has meant that the DNA or protein cannot be detected. But consumer demand for information is related to the use of the technology rather than whether it can be picked up by detection methods when it is sold.

  19. The only way to ensure comprehensive information about the use of this technology is to ensure traceability throughout the food chain. This means ensuring that genetically modified crops are segregated. Although this is becoming increasingly difficult with soya where it is estiamted that 40 per cent of this year's US harvest will be genetically modified, it should not be ruled out particularly for other crops, including those that will be grown in Europe. Recent efforts by the UK retail sector have demonstrated that it is possible to secure non-genetically modified supplies of soya.

  Traceability is not only essential to ensure choice, but also to ensure safety. If a problem is identified with a product either post-approval, or in the case of a product that has not had to go through our approval process, we need to be able to withdraw affected foods.

  20. It has been argued that as genetically modified crops are increasingly grown and used in food production, cross-contamination, either as a result of gene transfer between crops or unintended contamination during transport, will be inevitable and therefore it is unrealistic to expect that there will still be products that do not contain genetically modified ingredients available. Organic food however does not use genetic modification. It is also likely that if the market does become dominated with genetically modified crops, consumers will be expected to pay a price premium for ones that are not genetically modified. This is unacceptable as in effect consumers will be paying more money for what today are considered to be standard products. Care needs to be taken to reduce and eliminate as far as possible contamination of products. There is therefore the need for careful control at all stages in the production of genetically modified foods.

  21. The issue of setting tolerances has been suggested. However, consumers who want to avoid genetic modification will still want to be able to choose food that has not been produced using genetic modification. Research needs to be conducted to establish tolerances based on detection limits which ensure that consumers are provided with the most accurate information possible and enables them to make informed choices.

  22. All foods or food ingredients derived using genetic modification should be clearly labelled. Processing aids are more of a problem as they are already widely used in food production. They should, therefore, be voluntarily labelled.

Approach taken by UK retailers and manufacturers:

  23. In the absence of clear European legislation, retailers and manufacturers have voluntarily started to label products that contain soya or maize protein as genetically modified. The have taken the view that soya from the US is now likely to be genetically modified and therefore should be labelled as such. Whilst this increases consumer awareness about the presence of genetically modified ingredients in everyday foods, and is therefore to be welcomed, it does little for consumer choice. In the absence of segregation it is, however, the best option. Unfortunately, it does not include all genetically modified ingredients as it is limited to soya protein. It does not, for example, include soya oil and soya lecithin.

  24. Whilst we have criticised using detection methods as the basis for decision-making, it is essential that resources are given to the development of validated detection methods for enforcement purposes.


  25. Three advisory committees have responsibility for approval of novel foods; the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE), the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) and the Food Advisory Committee (FAC), but we are concerned that wider issues and general issues of principle may fall between their remits. For example, segregation was not addressed by any of the committees which resulted in a failure to anticipate the action by US producers. Broader agricultural and environmental issues can also be missed when products are assessed on this case by case basis.

  26. In view of concern about the environmental impact of genetically modified foods, particularly on gardeners, our magazine Gardening Which? recently called for the growing of genetically modified crops in the UK to be halted until we have had an inquiry to ensure that we are aware of the likely consequences and that there are adequate safeguards in place.

  27. The membership and remit of the relevant advisory committees should be reviewed to ensure that issues no longer fall through any gaps in the system. Although steps have been taken to open up the advisory committees concerned, this needs to go further. Methods of actively engaging and debating future developments in biotechnology with consumers need to be developed and used as the basis for policy. We particularly welcomed the opportunity to take part in an open meeting of the ACNFP when it considered the issue of monitoring of genetically modified foods.

  28. Similarly, steps should be taken to open up the relevant advisory committees within the European Union and to appoint consumer representatives. This should help to ensure that the committees start to consider the wider, social aspects of genetic modification. There is also an important role for the Risk Assessment Unit in DGXXIV to develop more appropriate and consistent mechanisms for risk assessment across the European Union.


  29. As foods are now traded globally, particularly in the case of commodity crops, they need to be controlled at an international level. Standards need to be set to ensure that there is comprehensive and consistent labelling of genetically modified foods. But there also needs to be international agreement over issues that go beyond national control, such as risk assessment, traceability and segregation.

  30. We have several reservations about the body that has responsibility for establishing international food standards: the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Codex standards have become increasingly significant since the establishment of the World Trade Organisation. Ultimately they can decide what degree of regulation can be introduced at national or European level.

  The Codex Committee on Food Labelling discussed labelling of genetically modified foods at its meeting on 25-29 May 1998, but failed to acknowledge the need for comprehensive labelling of genetically modified foods, despite our representatives, Consumers' International, calling for labelling of all foods or food ingredients derived by the use of genetic modification. Different approaches to labelling have been adopted internationally and the adoption of a Codex standard that required full, clear labelling would ensure consistency.

  Broader issues relating to how Codex reaches its decisions also need to be addressed. It is currently dominated by industry and has very limited consumer involvement, although it has made a commitment to consider how this can be addressed.


  31. The biotechnology industry is fiercely competitive and dominated by a few multi-national companies. It has been argued that in ensuring greater control over genetically modified foods we are losing out to US and Japanese biotechnology companies.

  32. However, as we have set out above we consider that the current system still needs to be tightened. It is important not to think only in terms of short-term economic gain, and to ensure that we have adequate safeguards in place in the longer-term. Although the potential risk posed by individual products may be considered minimal, it is important to realise that many uncertainties do remain and the failure to ensure adequate control could have severe consequences for the population and the environment. Ultimately, the failure to introduce adequate systems for the approval and monitoring of genetically modified foods could mean that there will be more significant costs in the future. These could, for example, be long-term public health costs or the resulting costs of a loss of consumer confidence in food products.

June 1998

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