Examination of witnesses (Questions 580
WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER 1998
and MR CLIFF
580. What we are looking at here is a certain
business opportunity. There will be a very small market of certain
people who are so concerned about the issue of GM crops that they
are prepared to pay a good more for the product. Would that be
a proper way to sum it up? So it does not really matter whether
you have added cost when you can get it back from the consumer,
but that does not mean that the vast majority of consumers will
be prepared to pay that extra cost.
(Mr Morrison) Herein lies the crux of the matter
because we are putting all this time and effort in trying to establish
this source of supply of the soya. I have only mentioned the soya
here. At the moment we are not passing that cost on but clearly
when we do yes, there will be a certain sector of the public that
will be prepared to pay for it, and, of course, if they are not
prepared to pay for it, then there will be no incentive for the
likes of Spillers to supply or the likes of ourselves to produce.
581. Are you and Spillers operating independently
(Mr Morrison) Yes. I did say that they had set
this up. In fact, they are only a small supplier to us and our
main suppliers of segregated traditional crops are two other producers.
I put this particular one up because they are the only company
that I am aware of that has actually produced this marketing information.
582. On traceability, I think you have really,
with your flow chart and your explanation of it, dealt with it.
I do not know if you want to say any more about it. You have told
us about the fact that there will be a cost and it is really a
question of estimating the market. Are there precedents for traceability
on other products?
(Mr Morrison) Yes. Just to continue on this, there
is an important aspect to this. You have seen the multiple steps
and, although we have gone to these great lengths, as Mr Parry
said, we have still ended up with some of these materials having
up to 1.5 per cent. GM presence due to this adventitious contamination
through the process. So we always have this at the back of our
minds, that we have done all this but we cannot get better. So
that is an unfortunate aspect of it. Yes, there are other traceability
systems, obviously the organic traceability one, where I think
their levels of acceptance can be, I think it is up to 4 per cent.
of mix, and there are various other farm assured systems that
supermarkets are operating these days, that retailers are operating,
and on top of that, of course, there is now the beef passport
system as well, which can set a precedent.
583. Could we turn to labelling and could
I ask you what your policy concerns on labelling are? Could I
also ask you a specific question about assurance to consumers
that GM foods are regulated. Might there be merit in a kitemark?.
Is there any scope for something like that in the field of genetically
(Mr Parry) My Lord Chairman, perhaps I could respond
from three perspectives. UB's policy is certainly to label according
to both British and EU laws and we supplement this with customer
Careline services, where people can get more information on demand.
However, as I referred to in my opening remarks, and Mr Morrison
has also referred to subsequently, we firmly believe that if we
do not differentiate a product which has been manufactured with
traditional materials from a product prepared with GM ingredients
but through whatever means is adventitiously contaminated, we
do not allow the consumer any choice at all. That would be the
net result, and this is why we believe that it is another reason
why the industry itself urgently needs both the threshold and
the de minimis level clarified. That is a fundamental issue
and certainly it was referred to by the FDF in their submission
earlier on. I would go further, to say that as a business we actually
do not support negative labelling, i.e. GM-free, and there are
two elements to it. One, we believe it would be misleading the
consumer, as in our opinion it could potentially send the wrong
message about genetic modification, but I think a more important
element through the flow charts that Mr Morrison has referred
to and the references which have been made earlier in both submissions
today, is that substantiation of such a claim we practically believe
to be unachievable, which is a fairly fundamental point but it
is a perception and belief that we have.
584. And the kitemark?
(Mr Morrison) If you are not making a GM-free
claim, which, as we said, we do not believe we can, then we cannot
see the benefit of actually making a GM kitemark presence. I am
not sure we would see any benefits for it across the business.
585. But then what does the issue of choice
come down to if you cannot say a product is GM-free? What then
is the choice that the consumer has?
(Mr Morrison) I think the key here is the threshold
limits, which we really do need to have in place to take account
of the low level of contamination that we talked about, because
if we have to label across GM presence then the consumer has no
choice at all but by setting this de minimis threshold
level, then this immediately gives the consumer a choice.
586. But you are saying GM-free? Above that
level it is GM-free?
(Mr Morrison) No, we are not saying GM-free. You
are just not making a claim. So you either say there is GM presence,
as per the legislation as it currently stands, or you are not
saying anything at all, and we would advocate not saying anything
at all for products below a threshold baseline.
(Mr Parry) But against clearly defined threshold
and de minimis levels, which would then also substantiate
and endorse the significant segregation and traceability that
Mr Morrison referred to earlier on. So we believe that there is
a distinction that can be drawn.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
587. The choice is between having a little
bit or a lot and if you want a little bit you pay a lot of money
(Mr Morrison) I guess that is quite true.
588. Have you come under any pressure from
wholesalers, supermarkets and those for whom you make goods, either
for or against genetic modification?
(Miss Scott) Yes, we have come under quite a degree
of pressure from a variety of sources. I think the Committee is
very well aware of the stance on GM of certain supermarket chains
and the direct impact that has on our business and that clearly,
to respond to that, we have to do one of two things. We either
have to source traditional traceable crop or we feel if we are
to provide guarantees of "GM-free" status, then we will
have to reformulate a particular ingredient such as soya out of
our products. Clearly in terms of how that corresponds to our
own company's position for our own branded goods, there is an
important point here. Fortunately, we are currently in a similar
position. Wherever possible for our own brands we are sourcing
traditional traceable crops, but as I think I implied, the position
and stance of retailers is obviously influencing very heavily
what we are doing as manufacturers. Just to touch on some other
pressures that we are also receiving, we are beginning to observe
the involvement of local authorities influencing school canteen
meals and tuckshop foods. There is a move potentially to exclude
all GM ingredients from school canteens and from tuck shops. Indeed,
we have heard from one wholesaler that provides canteens that
they will no long stock any branded product which contains GM
as an ingredient. So as a manufacturer we are now being dictated
to about what we can and cannot have in our products, and this
is obviously an increasingly worrying concern to us.
589. Could I turn to the bioscience companies.
Do you have any reservations about the way they conduct their
affairs? Have you heard suggestions that they tend to go round
the world developing their products in areas where there is the
minimum of regulation, orshall I put it this waythey
are helpfully regulated? This Committee had a case of this some
time ago, of genetically modified salmon which a company wanted
to develop, was barred from doing it in America and so came to
Scotland, of all places, where they were permitted to do it. Are
you uneasy about the way in which these bioscience companies seem
to go round the world finding easy places to carry out all sorts
(Miss Scott) Perhaps I can pick up a general point.
Clearly we have no problem with biotechnology's involvement but
what we object to strongly is the imposition of biotechnological
advances on manufacturers and retailers like ourselves, and also
clearly on consumers, without there having been proper, adequate
consultation and review of the scientific evidence. Indeed, this
is historical but our views have not been sought in the past and
one might say that our views have even been trampled on by the
fact that they have not been sought. I think we have mentioned
before that the one non-negotiable aspect of our business is that
our foods must be safe and they must be perceived as being safe
by consumers, and we believe that consumer anxiety rises and is
a difficulty to manage if we do not have an adequate framework
and system to manage the introduction of new developments, and
inform the public, as I indicated in one of my earlier responses,
about new developments prior to products actually being on the
shelf. So we feel that the lack of consultation, the lack of notice,
the imposition of some of the past biotechnological advances,
has not been helpful in gaining public acceptance. I have to say,
regarding your specific question about biotechnological companies
seeking favour from countries where the regulations might be more
sympathetic, I personally do not have any knowledge of that, but
my colleagues may have.
(Mr Parry) No.
590. Could I go back to what you said a
few seconds ago. You said you had been "trampled on",
I think were the words you used, by the bioscience companies.
I think it is a terribly important point that you are making to
the Committee. I wonder if we could have some examples, either
now or in a paper that you might submit to us, of the way in which
you feel you have been trampled on because I think this is important.
But I am surprised that you do not have a view as a company with
regard to the point I made about bioscience companies running
round the world looking for easy places in which to do whatever
they want to do?
(Miss Scott) I think rather than not having a
view we are just not aware that that is taking place, but my colleagues
or others in the industry may be more familiar with that.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
591. Just to make sure that we know what
everybody is talking about, what Lord Jopling is referring to
is a company that wished to undertake trials on fish in containment.
Having done that in the United Kingdom they did not wish, and
would not have been allowed, to put the product into the environment.
It was not that they found the system here any easier to get a
product into the marketplace. So I would not want to give the
impression that, in fact, our regulations allowed products to
be introduced here that had not been introduced somewhere else;
it was merely the testing. You do a lot of work also in China,
do you not?
(Mr Parry) We do some but it is not particularly
592. Do you produce products for the Chinese
(Mr Parry) We do produce some, yes.
593. What is the reaction there of the consumer
to these products?
(Miss Scott) We do not have detailed knowledge
of consumer attitudes but certainly my role of communicating to
the business is international and we do so on this issue. We are
not aware of any significant, or any, feedback at all from that
market, whereas we do pick up quite considerable differences of
public attitudes and opinion right across our European markets.
594. So what you are referring to is the
different views of public consumer opinion in different parts
of the world when you are referring to other issues?
(Miss Scott) Yes.
595. Which are very different?
(Miss Scott) Absolutely.
596. In the United States of America there
is an enormous consumer acceptance of this technology, as there
obviously is in China. You have never heard of anybody from there,
whereas it is just in Europe that there is a particular concern?
(Miss Scott) Indeed.
(Mr Morrison) Could I add a further point. Our
regulations, of course, do cover the aspects that you are talking
about, so even if research is undertaken with agreement to do
that under 90/220, if the licensing is approved to do the initial
work and then it is not allowed to be released, does that not
really show that the system is actually working?
Lord Wade of Chorlton: Exactly.
597. With great respect, no, especially
if the initial work is done in a country where there is virtually
no legislation or monitoring, and I think there are countries
where that is the case.
(Mr Morrison) As I understand the legislationand
we are not directly involved in it
598. Sorry, I am not talking about the United
Kingdom. I am talking about other countries around the world which
have virtually no regulation whatever.
(Mr Morrison) All we can come back to then is
the fact that we do need, on an international basis, a body to
advise, to regulate. Mr Ferguson referred to an overarching body
earlier and was really saying that that overarching body needs
to be international rather than United Kingdom-based or EU-based,
but I certainly think that what we have here seems to be working
quite well and we would like to see it extended.
599. Just to finish this, coming back to
the "trampled on" point, can we receive a paper from
you on what you had in mind when you said you had been extremely
irritated to have been trampled on by various bioscience companies?
(Miss Scott) I think we were really citing the
introduction of the commodity crops. I am not sure that there
are details that would elaborate more than the general perception
of the food industry in the United Kingdom and across Europe,
which was that, although we are in discussions, as colleagues
at FDF have said, through trade bodies and so on, largely the
introduction of the US commodity crops into the United Kingdom
and into Europe was not debated and discussed in detail in advance
and, therefore, the public in general in the United Kingdom and
Europe did not have the opportunity, as I said, of properly debating
and discussing the introduction of, and developing, an appropriate
system of managing the introduction of the particular commodity
crops into these countries. So I think it was a general comment
that I was making rather than more specific detailed comments.
(Mr Morrison) Could I add one point to that. As
we have explained about the traceability and the great lengths
that we have gone to, I think that actually reflects the problems
we have in being able to have a product that we did not need to
label because we could not do it directly because of the commingling
issues on soya and possibly as well on the maize.
600. Would you go so far as to say that
the lack of any international agreement at the present time on
the handling of GM crops is something that is causing you problems
today, or if not today, is likely to in the near future?
(Mr Parry) Undoubtedly we believe that to be the
case and I think that Mr Ferguson in his comments earlier on regarding
the international overarching co-ordination amply described our
feelings as well. So the answer to your question is undoubtedly,
601. As a company, are you involved in any
work on a code of practice and, if so, with whom are you developing
it? Are you involved in any way with a governmental body or a
European body? If not, should they be involved?
(Mr Morrison) We are not directly involved, no.
Obviously we were very much involved in the development of the
IGD guidelines but we are not involved further. We are aware of
the NFU initiative but if there were to be any guidelines, then
I think they need to be on a much wider scale than just the United
Kingdom because most of these GM crops are likely to come from
abroad in the near future.
602. Are the delays involved in the processing
of applications for the release of genetically modified products
within the European Union's regulatory system also something that
causes you concern or problems?
(Mr Morrison) Of course, that is further down
the chain than we are but we are aware that there is concern about
the length of time that they do take to be approved. If it is
a United Kingdom one, it would have to go through the United Kingdom
process and then that would have to go to the European Union as
well and perhaps it may be better to have awe keep talking
about overarching but an overarching European Union protocol,
but very much based on the United Kingdom system because that
one seems to be working quite effectively.
Chairman: This overarching
committee is going to have an awful lot to do. That brings us
to the end of our questions, so perhaps I can thank you all very
much indeed for having come to give us evidence. It has been extremely
helpful and interesting.