Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 566 - 579)




  566.  Good morning, may I welcome you to the Committee and may I thank you on behalf of the Committee very much for coming to give us evidence on the subject of genetic modification in crops from the perspective of a manufacturing company. Could I perhaps ask you to introduce yourselves and your company and, in doing so, perhaps you could say how far up and down the food chain you extend? Do you do, for example, any farming yourself? If not, do you have links with farmers, or do you only purchase your raw materials? At the other end of the supply chain, do you have any direct outlets to consumers?
  (Mr Parry)  Thank you, my Lord Chairman. My name is Stephen Parry and I am the United Biscuits Group Technical Director.
  (Mr Morrison)  I am Cliff Morrison and I am the Technical Director of United Biscuits Frozen and Chilled Foods, which is a division of United Biscuits.
  (Miss Scott)  I am Joanna Scott and I am Head of External Relations at Group Headquarters.
  (Mr Parry)  To put in context your question about United Biscuits and its relationships, we actually do not own any farms but clearly we do source ingredients and components from that particular supply base. Our company is an international food business operating in 21 countries. It has a total of 46 manufacturing sites worldwide and its products are available in more than 90 countries. We employ more than 20,000 people worldwide, of whom a significant proportion—16,000—are based in the United Kingdom. McVitie's Group is the third largest biscuit company in the world and, together with UK Foods, makes up the United Biscuit group of companies. As an individual company, we are a major member of FDF and have supported the Federation's position and I would certainly like to put forward our perspective on these issues this morning. I just wondered, my Lord Chairman, if I could make some introductory comments before the detailed questions in the opening minutes, which would provide a framework to our position as a business.

  567.  Yes, please do.
  (Mr Parry)  Thank you. The topic of genetic modification in agriculture is an important one for us. Managing the production of genetic modification of food is clearly a global issue and, like other manufacturers, we recognise that it can bring benefits to both society and to consumers. Product safety is, and always will be, however, our priority. We will, therefore, only use GM ingredients provided we are confident they are approved safe. We do have concerns, however, that the introduction of GM food in agriculture while it remains little understood may cause anxiety and confusion among our customers and consumers, and while that happens, acceptance of foods containing GM ingredients may be poor. We recognise consumers' attitudes to GM in the United Kingdom and across many parts of Europe, as surveyed by Eurobarometer, indicate a low level of trust regarding scientific and government approval of this technology. We emphasise that scientifically based regulations alone will not guarantee consumer acceptance. That can only be, and must be, achieved through a broader policy of providing information and advice. As far as our own business is concerned, we continuously monitor consumer reactions on all issues by our Careline telephone services, and I thought it might be helpful to give one or two statistics in that context. Based on the volume of calls we have received, GM foods appear to be of less concern to most consumers than media coverage might sometimes suggest. In the nine months since the beginning of 1998 our various Carelines throughout the whole of the business have taken over 43,000 calls from consumers on a wide range of topics and issues of interest. Of those 43,000, a small number—1.4 per cent.—have related to GM. Whilst this is hardly a scientific sampling it does support our previous statement that media coverage can suggest a degree of consumer concern which is some way from reality. Nonetheless, United Biscuits recognises that some consumers are concerned about genetic modification and believes that consumers clearly have the right of choice. We enhance the right of choice through three elements: first, sourcing traditional crops with clear traceability; secondly, labelling those foods containing GM ingredients as required by law, and thirdly, supplementing label information through our Careline services. In making this short presentation, I wish to emphasise, however, that, first, even when we have sourced traceable, traditional crops, testing has shown that up to 1.5 per cent. GM material can still be present. Clearly isolation and/or separation are not totally succeeding, even when the supply chain goes to extraordinary lengths to secure these supplies. Secondly, the industry urgently needs clarity in the area of a de minimis level, which has already been referred to by our FDF colleagues, as well as agreement on a list of ingredients which do not require labelling. It is argued by some that we should label a product which contains an ingredient derived from a GM source irrespective of whether GM material, even only in trace amounts, is actually present in the product as consumed. Such a view, we believe, works strongly against consumer choice. If manufacturers are to make strenuous efforts and incur considerable expense to source these traditional crops and so provide consumers with choice, then only to find that there is trace presence of GM material, the dilemma is clearly whether or not to label. An approach could be that such foods would be labelled. However, this would result in blanket labelling and ultimately offer consumers no choice at all. Therefore, in conclusion, there would be no incentive for manufacturers to source traditional supplies if they found themselves being required to label the presence of GM ingredient, whether it can be detected or not. I should stress that none of our attempts to source traditional crops reflects any belief on our part that we do not think GM foods, where approved, are safe. They reflect our aim to provide consumer choice. We very much hope that the influence and reach of this Committee can help achieve more certainty and clarity than currently exists. Thank you once again for your invitation to present, my Lord Chairman, and we welcome the opportunity to answer your questions.

Chairman:  Thank you. We would like to go through some of those issues one by one and we have some specific questions to ask you.

Lord Gallacher

  568.  Mr Parry, do the genetically modified products currently on the market benefit you as manufacturers? What modifications would be of most value to you? Are you indicating these ideas to your suppliers, and when do you expect such modifications to be on the market, either in the United States or in the European Community?
  (Mr Parry)  Thank you for your question. I think Mr Morrison should answer that particular question.
  (Mr Morrison)  My Lord, the answer here is yes and no. Currently there are four kinds of genetic materials approved here in the United Kingdom. We use one of these extensively and that is vegetarian cheese using genetically produced chymosin, which is the enzyme, and the benefit of this is that the cheese is available for vegetarians because the chymosin is a replacement for the calf rennet. We have been using this material for some time now and it has, over the last three or four years, gained in popularity to the extent that I believe that well over 90 per cent. of all cheeses now are produced by this method. It has benefits in terms of reproducibility, consistency and quality over the rennet-produced cheese, so there are clear consumer benefits with that particular product. The second GM product, of which you will no doubt be aware, is the tomato paste. Whilst that is only available via retail outlets at the moment we could see benefits in using that particular material in terms of consistency and quality and also potentially in price. So we do appreciate that the tomato paste has consumer benefits. As to the other two currently available, the maize and the soya, we do not see any benefits to ourselves or retailers or consumers at this time and the benefits, I think, definitely go back to those of yield for the farmers and of environmental benefits, although no doubt in due course we could well see the benefits of that coming through, but certainly not at this time. In fact, it is almost the opposite for us because we are very keen, as Mr Parry said, to source traditional crops and in doing this we have a significant on-cost at this time following through traceability, etc. So it is almost a negative impact for us. Particularly, as Mr Parry outlined, there is this issue of a low level of contamination of GM material in the traditional crop and if we had to label at these low levels then, in fact, there is no benefit to us to go to this large and significant undertaking that we are currently doing to source them. Looking to the future, then yes, no doubt the second generation of GM crops are going to have a benefit and you have already heard about the potential nutritional values that could be modified into crops and particularly into oils in the future, and we also are aware that potatoes, wheat and sugar beet are coming along as well in this country. All those are going to have both environmental and nutritional benefits, we hope, in the future, but we are not directly influencing this at the moment.

Lord Rathcavan

  569.  Could I ask about safety? Do you share the public's concerns at the moment about the safety of GM foods, particularly in relation to allergenicity and antibiotic resistance?
  (Mr Parry)  We are convinced that GM foods, once approved, are safe. The approval process of governments, both here and in the EU, and their advisers certainly appears to us on the basis of following the debate and taking expert advice to have been scientifically rigorous and we are confident in the outcome, but perhaps Mr Morrison can expand further.
  (Mr Morrison)  Yes. Obviously consumer safety to our company is absolutely paramount and we do, as Mr Parry said, have confidence in the United Kingdom, particularly in the regulatory and scientific advisory committee processes. You referred to the antibiotics marker and I think that that has now been seen as being unnecessary. The antibiotics marker was there effectively to show that the GM has taken and there is no need for that and I am sure that future products will not have that marker in place. There are other alternative markers. So it is there at the moment but we will see that rapidly disappearing, and whilst we are not directly involved, we do take scientific advice in the area of safety in total. The Royal Society summary, which addresses this issue as well, has already been mentioned this morning and we are very supportive of that total document and its approach.

  570.  I think you are right. The Royal Society in its recommendations does indicate the undesirability of using antibiotic resistant marker genes. Would it not help consumer confidence in this whole subject if antibiotic resistant marker genes were banned?
  (Mr Morrison)  Speaking personally, yes, I believe that would be the right way to go. Yes, I would agree with that.

Lord Jopling

  571.  Are you not in some ways talking in opposite directions? Mr Parry tells us—and I did write it down, "We are convinced that GM foods, once approved, are safe." That is what you said on the one hand and yet the Royal Society says: "The Society has also some concerns about the regulatory processes governing the development and use of GM crops." Surely you cannot have it both ways if you say you strongly approve of the Royal Society's suggestions and then you say that GM foods, when approved, are safe. Is that not a bit of a hostage to fortune?
  (Mr Parry)  I think we are referring to the mechanism.
  (Mr Morrison)  Yes. I think on the one hand the Royal Society paper covers the whole aspect of growing and environmental issues and the food as well. They are two separate issues and I think we are particularly applying ourselves to the food because we are not able to influence the growing aspects of the crops, which are different from the end food products.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  572.  Could I ask what you believe could be done to improve the public acceptance of gene technology?
  (Miss Scott)  In our view, we believe it is always more difficult to win over public understanding and acceptance of a new technology if there has not been prior and adequate information and public debate. Whilst we acknowledge that there have been considerable efforts in recent years to promote public understanding of this very complex issue, sadly the reality is that there is a low level of awareness and understanding amongst both consumers and opinion-formers and, therefore, we feel that this new technology has suffered from inadequate information and public debate. In addition to that, the public's distrust of industry and government and now scientists as a result of BSE perhaps means that the task of winning over public acceptance is even more challenging. We also feel that the media have a very powerful and pivotal role in gaining public acceptance. They of course through their actions can promote public confidence but they can also hinder and damage public confidence and, therefore, acceptance. We therefore look to the media to be excellent communicators and ensure that their messages are always balanced, up-to-date and accurate, and therefore we feel that the media can help win over public confidence on this issue, but we also recognise that this is something we have to be patient about. We have to persist. It is not a "quick fix"; it is going to take a long time. Finally, on this question, again to pick up on Mr Parry's opening comments, based on our own consumer Careline monitoring we do not feel that consumer concern is as significant as some reports might suggest.

  573.  Could I follow up on that? You have identified a number of the problems. Do you as a company take any action to try and educate people more effectively? What action do you take to try and make sure that media reports are more accurate?
  (Miss Scott)  Obviously as a company we are very responsive to any questions and enquiries that we receive from consumers, public interest groups and the media. We will always ensure that we respond to any enquiries and provide whatever information is requested. We do that through our carelines but also in responding to media enquiries, in attending conferences and public debates. That is what we do from our own company perspective. In addition, we actively support trade bodies and organisations which are helping inform the public. Specifically, we support the FDF's Foodfuture programme and we have also been a party to the IGD which was referred to earlier, in the development of their voluntary guidelines. So we are active in promoting public information and debating platforms through our trade bodies.

Lord Grantchester

  574.  This has largely covered the question I was going to ask. Perhaps I could ask for further clarification of your last statement, that you get actively involved through the FDF. Do you proactively go out yourself and provide extra information rather than only through your trade body? Do you consider the level of information to be adequate at the moment? Might it be improved by a more over-arching information source, perhaps a higher body again?
  (Miss Scott)  Lord Chairman, yes, indeed, and we always will provide consumers with information. We do as a company have a number of information materials and leaflets as well as relying on our trade bodies' materials. On your question about a single source of information or an overriding body, we believe that a single source of information could have some merits. For example, it would ensure, or help to ensure, that there was avoidance of duplication of effort and consistency of message. Also we have to remember that the resources, the financial resources and the people resources, in this major information role are significant. So a single source might be helpful. I think the reality is that it is probably not feasible and also we would question why we would do it on this particular issue when we do not do it on other issues. We would also point to the Food and Drink Federation's Food Future initiative as actually being very much an umbrella campaign or umbrella initiative. The campaign has in particular sought to work with partners such as the BBSRC, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, such as the Science Museum, and working with those sorts of partners has helped to provide a credible basis, an accurate basis, ensuring that the information is kept up-to-date and is obviously, therefore, perceived, or hopefully perceived, by the consumer as an authoritative source of information. But I guess the bottom line is that we could always do more and we need constantly to review actions and do as much as we can to help inform the public.

  575.  Do you think there has been any change in the public perception of genetic modification over recent time? Would you agree that it is very much the pressure bodies against the technology and the general public slightly ambivalent? Do you think there has been a change?
  (Miss Scott)  My Lord Chairman, again to go back to our consumer Careline monitoring, which we stress is not a scientific survey clearly, we have relatively speaking a low level of enquiry, which would indicate to us a low level of concern. It does appear to blip marginally. We may be talking about receiving 50 or 60 calls the day after a World in Action programme or the day after a major announcement, but compared to the number of enquiries or calls that we would get on other issues, it is still a very small number of consumer enquiries to us. Whether that is, as I say, an accurate assessment is difficult to say.
  (Mr Parry)  Outside of those specific incidences, there seems to be an underlying level that is broadly consistent and constant.


  576.  An underlying level of what—concern?
  (Mr Parry)  There is an underlying enquiry through our Careline services that seems to be at a fairly consistent level outside of the particular separate incidences to which Miss Scott referred.

Lord Rathcavan

  577.  May I ask a more general question following this question of public confidence and safety. Is not the problem that the only product which consumers can see as a real, genuine GM product is tomato paste, and also vegetarian cheese, but vegetarian cheese is less identified as being a GM product. The public concern is more with GM soya, which can find its way into pizzas and virtually anything else, and they feel they can go into a pizza shop or restaurant and find they are involuntarily eating GM soya? With this product there is no price benefit coming through yet to the consumer. Surely this is the key to consumer acceptance, as it has been in tomato paste, which I believe is 20 per cent. cheaper than traditional tomato paste? You have already said that the current benefits of GM technology in maize and soya are going to the farmers, although when we met the Soya Bean Association of America they had not seen much financial benefit yet: it seems to be going to the biotech companies at the moment. Do you hope to see the cost benefits coming through in due course and will that encourage more public acceptance?
  (Mr Parry)  Our personal view is that certainly there is no apparent price benefit as yet seen by the consumer, that certainly the benefit is so far at the supply chain and is all front-loaded. So our answer to your question is yes. As far as the perception of the consumer in the longer term is concerned, assuming it starts to come through in terms of the price benefit, then that could well have an influence. Certainly in the tomato paste context it is highly visible, that it is what it is. It is highly visible that there is a price advantage. Equally the consumers have the right of choice and make that choice accordingly and the statistics would suggest that where there is that visibility and clarity then there are a number of consumers who make the decision based on the price relationship. But I think that comes back to a consistent theme which is certainly true with the FDF submission as well. It is about this clarity and visibility.
  (Miss Scott)  Could I add one further comment on that. It is not just necessarily the price advantages but there need to be perceived advantages to consumers, and with the tomato purée, although the price advantage is the key element perhaps, I think a lot of information has suggested that there is actually a quality and taste advantage as well and that sales of the GM tomato paste have actually outstripped the traditional tomato paste. So whilst price might be a benefit it is also a quality and other consumer benefit that we hope to see coming down the line.

Lord Jopling

  578.  Turning to segregation to which you referred in your helpful opening statement, but whilst you have been sitting at the witness table you have provided us with a document from Spillers Premier Products. It would seem from the evidence in this that there is a good deal of public demand for segregation. The document quotes Nature a year ago: "According to surveys, up to 85% of European consumers would shun genetically altered foods if given the choice." Spillers summarise their operation: "Spillers Premier Products is leading the field in the segregation of non-genetically modified soya beans. The Canadian operations are supervised by Manna International Inc., specialists in Identity Preservation for organic produce. Utilising a similar traceability system to that well established in the organic industry, Manna follows the soya beans from seed certification to the point of shipment. On arrival in the UK, Spillers Premier Products ensures that the audit trail is maintained from the port right through to the soya mills." That seems to suggest, on top of the Iceland experience, that segregation is possible and there is a public demand for it. And, if I may say so, with hard wheats or with malting barley there is a long tradition of segregation in international trade. Do you not think that, in view of the clear public concern about genetically modified foods, there is a case for encouraging segregation?
  (Mr Morrison)  Spillers are one of our sources for this traditional material. In addition to the flyer you have there, there is a very significant audit trail backing that whole product up from Canada. One of the advantages of Canada is that because the climate is cold there are no volunteers and the seeds are killed off over the winter, so that the product that you grow is actually—I would hesitate to say 100 per cent. but it is certainly a very pure material. But you will also notice in this document that Spillers will not guarantee that it is GM-free. You mentioned segregation of other crops and if you think about the ones that I am particularly aware of, durum wheat, the separation of hard and soft wheats, there is there a 2 per cent. tolerance, I believe. Other crops and other organisations can go up to 4 per cent. of contamination of the crop. In fact, in this whole area of segregation, as Mr Parry mentioned, we are trying to source traditional crops and whilst we have not had technologies followed through on the Spillers one (although since they have done such a good document I thought it was well worth putting forward) we have ourselves travelled extensively over this year to North and South America and to the Continent looking at traceability and we have gone to great lengths to try and establish traceability. If my Lord Chairman would permit, I do have a couple of overheads I would like to put up. You already have hard copies of these.[2] I do not want to go through these in total detail but obviously we need to establish, to start with, that there is segregated seed. It is absolutely vital that we do that, and we then need to establish a paper trail, invoices, etc. all the way through to the grower to make sure those seeds are the only ones that are actually used. During the growing and the harvesting, and I am aware that some of your Lordships have an interest in farming—you will be aware these days that harvesting is by contract, so that a harvesting machine can be working on one farm one day and another the next and what we are going to have to do is to make sure that cleaning is 100 per cent. effective on that equipment in order that we are not going to get any contamination from a GM to a non-GM crop, and we effectively follow the integrity all the way through, right through to the port of shipping. This audit chart relates to soya, I might add. If you think about some of the issues on silos in the document that I have given you, you can see that some of those silos are 1,000 or 2,000 tonnes in size and they are all connected by elevators. What happens is that when the product is shipped to the United Kingdom, elevators will be used in sequence to fill the container ship. Some of these container ships can carry up to 50,000 tonnes of soya, so you have to make sure that you have a risk-based checking system, audit system, all the way through, that the correct elevators are used, the correct silos are used, the system is fully cleaned, etc. I believe that Spillers in fact only use small shipping containers of 12-18,000 tonnes and not 50,000 tonnes, and that, of course, is going to put an on-cost on. If you are getting a segregated crop and then using a 50,000-tonne shipping container, obviously some of that material in the ship will be non-GM and some will be GM and we need traceability all the way through. What you also need, in addition to the paper trail and the cleaning criteria, etc., is to carry out testing. What they tend to do in the States is to test by germination systems, so they take clean seed and they treat it with whatever material the herbicide is, because we are talking here about the soya herbicide. They treat the seed with that and then germinate it and obviously if there is no germination then there is non-GM seed there. Do you understand what I am saying? So the second phase of the process then is bringing the materials into Europe to process. Again you have to go through the same kind of silos, storage at the processors, and you go through cleaning and shelling and eventually processing. My colleague earlier mentioned you almost need parallel streams and one of our processors who is providing us with traditional materials is actually using a separate line, but, of course, that is very expensive. If you start to think about the total size of the soya crop, I believe it is 70 million tonnes in the US. Out of that 70 million only 1 per cent. is coming to the United Kingdom and out of that 1 per cent. I estimate that no more than 100,000 tonnes is segregated, non-GM material, because the rest is probably commingled. If you go back to 1968, when I think there was just 2 per cent. of GM material, 1967, 15, 1968, 30, and it is suggested that it could be somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent. next year, so the need for segregation is not so much about GM, it is about the segregated crop.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  579.  Just following up on that, it would appear to me that Spillers have identified a very interesting added-value marketplace for a small volume of specialist product. How much more do they actually charge for the specialist product?
  (Mr Morrison)  One of the questions was, are we seeing any cost benefits. The price for commingled material is no different from that of previous years pro rata, but the materials that we are buying are anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent. more expensive, so we are paying the premium for this system and we are taking from four different companies, so it is not just Spillers. But on top of that, we have very considerable expense in going out to these places and carrying out the traceability, the risk assessment, for the supply and also, of course, the further testing, and it was mentioned that it was £100 a test but you are into many tests.

2   See supplementary memorandum. Back

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