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 Cuisinea 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
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
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
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
different approaches to risk assessment
can be used within different Member States and within different
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
labelling should not be a substitute
for safetysafety of products should be assured at the approval
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.