Examination of witnesses (Questions 700
WEDNESDAY 4 NOVEMBER 1998
700. So are you saying that work could be
carried out here and that the crop could be grown in a developed
country with very little regulation? The only regulation that
would happen is when that comes back as a food source within Europe,
is it not?
A. Yes. I am
going over my boundaries and going into that of ACRE. There are
issues and there are recommendations being made and I am sure
those recommendations will be widely dispersed throughout the
world. In fact, ACRE is held in equally high esteem as ACNFP and
they are looking at issues in terms of planting distances and
effects on the countryside, etcetera, etcetera. In terms of what
can we do politically here in the UK to control another country
elsewhere in the world, it is a very big question and obviously
as a simple scientist it is outside my remit and it is an issue
of global politics.
701. Even if the work was undertaken here
and then exported?
A. If the work
was undertaken here it would be subject to our own safety and
our own regulatory procedures. If it was simply work that needs
to be exported because of the climatic conditions, e.g. we cannot
grow bananas in the UK and so there would be a certain amount
of control or advice there, but if you were asking me what we
could do at the final regulatory stage, that is a major political
question. It would not be a case of saying, "Here is the
technology, get on and grow it", it would be accompanied
with the appropriate advice.
702. Could you tell us how you think the
status and work of your Committee might be affected if the Food
Standards Agency comes into being? From what we have heard it
sounds as though it may be some years down the road before it
is up and running. It would be operating in the same field as
A. We have all
heard that and obviously it is not protocol to make any detailed
comments prior to the Queen delivering her speech. I am certainly
unequivocal in my assertion that this is a major opportunity for
us to instill consumer confidence and a major part of acceptance
not just of GM foods, I hasten to add, but this is an attempt
by the agency to bring things under one banner and perhaps engender
an holistic approach. The White Paper was very explicit that the
work of the ACNFP would continue. Indeed, I would hope that we
would continue to earn the respect of peers and worldwide respect.
The difference would simply be that rather than reporting to Ministers
who make the decisions after taking our advice, we would report
through the commissioners of the agency. I do think it would be
a wonderful help to us in terms of allowing us to evidence our
real concern for the consumers. There has been so much hype leading
up to the formation of the agency. The show is on the road. Procedures
and structures and things are obviously being developed and in
a sense the secretariats of the committees are there and they
will still operate and service the committees in the same way
that they do. So it is not an issue affecting the Committee directly,
I think it is much more an issue of consumer confidence.
703. I wonder whether you would like to
expand on your answer to Lord Redesdale's question about the fact
that when food comes into this country you would require it to
have undergone an environmental assessment. I just wonder whether
this is always the case because when the Minister of Agriculture
was here a few weeks ago I pressed him on whether there was a
concern that products could come in through the back door as it
were without undergoing the gamut of tests and standards required
in this country. His response was, for example, that in the United
States the environment was not a concern . I wonder whether you
would like to comment on whether products and foodstuffs can come
into this country without having undergone full testing and escape
A. As I have
said before, the whole area of the environmental assessment if
it is not applied to a novel food is somewhat outside of my remit.
If it were a food that had not been imported into the country
before, then indeed it would be a novel food and we would ask
questions about the environmental assessment and obviously pass
that on to ACRE. We do not have on the Committee agronomists,
horticulturists and the sort of wealth of experience that we would
need to answer in detail these sort of environmental questions.
Any novel food would come before the Committee and part of our
deliberations is to ensure that the appropriate environmental
assessment has been carried out.
704. What is behind my question is the different
regulatory standards that operate in the US and EC. I am trying
to identify whether this is a problem.
A. I think you
have identified where there is a potential problem and where further
work needs to be done and where again not only do we need to take
an holistic approach to the many food chain issues that there
are, novel foods, environmental and a whole host of other considerations,
but we need to take a global view because indeed the food chain
is global. I was talking to the Food & Drink Federation and
they were at pains to stress, which we know anyway, the global
nature of their suppliers and indeed the disparate nature of their
suppliers. They will buy particularly commodity crops from sources
depending on the market price, etcetera. Taking a simplistic view,
it is very very important that we are aware of that, but what
we can do in a practical sense in the UK or the EU to control
USA FDA decisions is limited in a sense, but what we must do is
enter into dialogue and continue the dialogue because there are
issues about crops that are sourced elsewhere.
705. Obviously it is of concern to the farmer
if his competitors are able to grow products from seeds that have
not yet been properly assessed within this country.
706. Professor, how do you envisage keeping
crops which have been engineered to produce active pharmaceuticals
separate from crops grown to produce food?
A. This is actually
a very important question and again I am not passing the buck
but I will preface my answer by saying that it is the business
of ACRE. From a scientific perspective, such crops will need to
be kept isolated from food crops and we are concerned from the
food end. Isolation distances, as I understand it and I could
not quote specific ones, are already used as part of the seed
certification process to ensure that the purity of a seek stock
is good and specialist growers do have experience of growing so-called
identity preserved non-GM crops, it may be for food use, it may
be for industrial use, it may be for pharmaceutical uses. Recently
SCIMAC have actually issued guidelines for commercial management
of GM crops in the UK and perhaps this could form a future basis
for separation of non-GM crops. I referred earlier to the fact
that this is one area where there is more research going on and
indeed more research needed. Questions arise like What sort of
guarantee do you want? Is a 99.5 per cent guarantee that the crop
is GM free sufficient? It is impossible to give a 100 per cent
guarantee. Obviously I have referred to segregated planting. There
are issues about segregation in terms of harvesting and segregated
processing, very very major, very difficult issues. There are
things that can be done genetically to render the pollen sterile
or indeed plants with no pollen. You need to be aware of the nature
of the crops themselves. Many of our crops, maize, sorghum I think
is one, soya, sunflower, are hybrid crops where by definition
you cannot save the seeds, etcetera. I understand that hybrid
rice is being developed. Then there are some other much more controversial
technologies. The article in the Times that I referred
to earlier on this morning referred to "terminator technology".
In a sense there are a whole host of arguments against it, but
this is one case where terminator technology would actually remove
the problem. There is often no simple answer because solving one
problem might create three or four that could be as big or bigger.
There are also other technologies like chloroplast genes. It is
now possible to introduce genes into the chloroplast so that they
are not expressed in the pollen and so there would not be the
same sort of danger of transfer. Certainly from a UK point of
view the only one where there is anywhere near consent in the
near future is in terms of herbicide tolerant crops and the big
problem in the UK, as your Lordships I am sure are aware, is with
rape because of the way that pollen spreads over vast distances
and the ease with which rape actually crosses and intercedes with
some of our native weeds and other plants. That is trying to give
you an holistic view. It is not my main area of expertise or indeed
the Committee's remit.
707. There is considerable concern about
the super weed. You mentioned that the pollen can be made sterile.
Would that be the single answer to the danger of the super weed?
A. No, it would
not be the single answer because it is not technically possible
to do that in every case. Genetics is so complicated and it is
not a case of you identify one gene and it has this one effect.
Often there is a particular effect that you see. How much pollen
is produced or the nature of the pollen grain or how it spreads
or how and when it fertilises, etcetera is controlled by a whole
host of different genes that influence different parts of the
process. So it is a very very difficult technical problem. I raised
it as something that perhaps has potential and it is being researched
and it is worth looking at in much more detail.
708. Are you concerned that GM foods, which
indeed may not be novel, may be unwittingly imported into the
United Kingdom from countries where safety assessments are fairly
rudimentary or lax or even non-existent?
A. Really the
simple answer is that under the Novel Food Regulation all foods
that contain GMOs or are derived from GMOs are classified as novel
foods and have to be approved before they can be sold in Europe.
So the EU, and specifically the UK in this case, is not reliant
on either rudimentary or non-existent safety assessments performed
elsewhere in the world. We cannot shortcut the process and we
need to be as cautious as possible. However, I explained to your
Lordships that the Novel Food Regulation is very recent and we
are seeing the first few cases coming through that system and
we need some time to see how it operates and to sit back from
it. At the moment the timespan is laid down in a very tight, very
explicit fashion. We need to see how it operates. It looks at
the moment as if there is a bit of a black hole in Brussels and
the limiting factor is going to be the Scientific Committee for
Food and how quickly that can deal with the backlog and how quickly
that can turn things around. We also need time. We need time to
be able to demonstrate and earn mutual respect. I have sat here
telling you that I believe that the ACNFP is held in great esteem
and indeed the regulation was based on the guidelines that the
ACNFP and my predecessors and indeed the secretariat worked so
hard to develop. Other countries have other competent authorities
who work in various ways and we have to earn their respect and
we have to see how they operate and we basically have to develop
that sort of competence that comes from knowing one another and
how we operate and a clarity of procedures, etcetera. In terms
of the second part of your question about the actual efficiency
of the process, I think it is too early to say, "Right, this
is what we can do. Let us change this and let's change that."
Let us work through more submissions under the Novel Food Regulation,
let us record very carefully how it works operationally and let
us look and see if there are indeed backlogs in Brussels and what
can be done about them and then start to say, "Well, it is
not efficient because this or that or the other has gone wrong".
We certainly should not be seen to be taking shortcuts in the
name of efficiency because we will be compromising our guiding
principle of safety and the precautionary principle. It is very
difficult to see what else could be done short of some generic
European central committee. I doubt that that is round the corner
in the near future.
709. What is the process for bringing imported
novel foods to your attention? Is it an obligation on the importer
to notify you if it is an imported food?
A. If it is a
novel non-GM food, that is right, there is an obligation. The
GM foods normally come from the companies who were actually producing
the novel insert or whatever it may be, but there would be an
obligation on the importer to inform the Ministry through the
normal system of trading and decisions would be made by the secretariat
as to whether or not this was a novel food. I have referred to
the information that the importer would need to work through and
provide. It would come to the Committee.
710. Are you confident that all novel non-GM
imported foods are brought to your attention as required?
I see it when it reaches the Committee. It is difficult for me
to comment generically on systems of trade and tariffs that are
way outside of my experience, but having worked with the secretariat
and with colleagues in MAFF, for instance, I have to say that
I have respect and am in awe of their ability and their dedication
to ensuring that the systems do operate effectively.
711. It has never become an issue.
A. That is right.
There are obviously questions in terms of the regulatory system
and the Laycott enforcement system, etcetera. Again this is where
something like the Food Standards Agency would be so wonderful
because in a sense what might be seen as disparate bits of activity
across different government departments and across different committees
could be seen under one banner.
712. It might be different in the future
with imported novel GM foods. It might be less easy to know if
foods that were GM modified were imported from third countries.
Could a situation arise where you were not sure that all GM modified
imported foods were being reported to you?
A. Short of saying
that I could be at every port watching every cargo being unloaded,
it would be impossible to be totally specific, but I have to say
that providedand it becomes a criminal matter if the law
is being floutedthe regulations and indeed the letter of
the law is being adhered to then I do have every confidence. I
should add that it is not simply a case of importing a novel food
per se but a food that might be used for a novel purpose.
So some of the things that come to the Committee are not necessarily
novel in that they have not been in the UK before but they are
being used in a novel way.
713. Is there any possibility that seeds
might have come from GM plants which have been grown where there
are no regulations and so we might be importing a seed which has
got peculiar properties?
A. I hate to
keep saying it is out of my remit, but I understand that there
are very stringent procedures in the lead up to the stage where
seeds are certified and I presume this would include details of
the origin of the seed and the agronomic conditions under which
it was grown, i.e. if there was a claim that it is an organic
type, a natural type product, how close it is to being 100 per
cent GM free, etcetera. So all that data would actually be included.
There was a joint press statement by Michael Meacher and Jeff
Rooker just last week in terms of the extra work that needs to
be done to look at this area and people like English Nature and
nature conservationist societies generally are actually addressing
this problem in their statements in terms of pulling back from
growing some of these GM things in the UK. Once you start talking
globally, as in all things GM technology is not an exception in
this, it becomes a matter of international diplomacy and international
law and all sorts of areas such as import trades tariffs that
are way outside my remit as a scientist.
714. Professor Bainbridge, leaving out of
the reckoning the Food Standards Agency, have you any thoughts
on how we can maintain public confidence in the regulatory process
A. Yes. Part
of my mission is to try and be very proactive in this respect.
I think there are lots of things we can do. Certainly I see it
as my role obviously to be completely independent. I do not see
that as meaning I should not talk, for instance, to retailers,
to food industry representatives, etcetera. At the end of the
day everyone that is involved in food chain supply wants one thing
and that is safe food. We need to get that message across to the
general public loud and clear. I think there is a great deal of
misunderstanding and there is a great deal of hype. It does not
help that there are scientistsscientists disagree
anyway, they are bound to in terms of some of the detailed arguments
and it sounds very patronising to say to the general public, "Well,
you wouldn't understand, but I am just telling you I am right",
and I would not presume to do that, but there are those scientists
that find it easier to make a name by being controversial than
they do for their science and so we have to cope with all of these
things. Many of the NGOs are of age now and there are people who
have made a career out of protesting about various issues. Indeed,
I think it is very very important as an independent committee
that we should talk to these people and work through many of these
issues and often by doing that we can identify possible ways forward.
In terms of the transparency, there is clearly a move right across
government for further transparency. My style is to be open and
accessible and friendly. Since I have been Chair of the Committee
we have asked for non-attributable minutes that are now published.
1991 was the first ACNFP Annual Report. We issue press releases.
I am trying to be as receptive as I can to requests for media
time and things like that. It is difficult when you do another
job as well and you live at the other end of the country, but
I think all these things help. It is a question of trying to be
honest and open and not saying, "Oh, it is 100 per cent safe,
don't worry." No, we cannot say that, but let us try and
work through some of the issues and where we do have a problem,
where we do need more researchand you have articulated
several areas this morninglet us be open and say that.
I think all of these things will help consumer confidence. We
are never going to win everyone over. I think it is quite important
that people have the information in a form that they can understand
and do have free choice. People have free choice now and it is
increasingly so. For several years you have been able to go to
the supermarket and buy conventional fruit and vegetables or pay
a premium for organic ones. I am sure your Lordships are aware
of the initiatives to make non-GM foods available in the supermarket.
I can foresee a time when the standard food which will contain
GM will be labelled accordingly and there will be non-GM products
at a premium. We have a long way to go. We have a lot of issues
to work through, analytical issues, regulatory issues, before
we are at that stage, but I do see that as the way forward. I
do not see it as part of my role as the Chair, metaphorically
speaking, to push GM foods down everyone's throats. I think it
is important to say they are here, they are a fact of life, but
these are the regulatory systems that we have in place. We do
caution "But please spend your money and take your choice".
I think that is absolutely vital.
715. Are you satisfied that the secretariat
is PR minded?
A. I have enormous
respect for the secretariat and I would not like to make any comment
about whether anyone is PR minded or not. Obviously there are
restrictions on civil servants in terms of things that they can
and cannot say. This is the beauty of a system whereby committees
have independent chairs. I obviously work very very closely with
the secretariat. I ask the secretariat in many cases for information
and I ask for support, I accept that, but at the end of the day
I am not prepared to compromise my science or my knowledge for
any particular viewpoint. I think my predecessor made a reference
to his role as being a tightrope walker between the consumer on
one side and government on the other and I think it is absolutely
crucial for consumer confidence that people like myself are seen
to be working very closely with government, but we are independent
and I am free to speak my mind. I hope I am PR minded, but I do
not think it is for me to say whether the secretariat are or not.
I was enormously encouraged when I saw the plans for the agency
and reference to the Communications Unit because it is my view
that there are issues and there always will be issues and there
will undoubtedly be further scares in a whole range of areas right
across the food chain. It is very very important that they are
handled correctly. There is no magic answer to that, otherwise
some clever PR man would have made a fortune by saying this is
the way to handle it. I do feel that Government has some way to
go in terms of handling some of these issues. I am sure the Government
is aware of that anyway. I think the Communications Unitmind
you, we are expecting a lot from itis something that could
be right up there in front in terms of the consumer. I am sure
if we made our meetings completely open we would be flooded with
observers and after a bit they would fall off because people would
find it quite dry and boring. It is the media hype end that has
got to be handled absolutely fairly and squarely.
Lord Willoughby de Broke
716. Professor, has your Committee had any
thoughts on the merits or demerits of a moratorium on GMOs?
A. We have not
discussed it in committee as a formal agenda item, but I certainly
have very strong opinions and so I will give you my opinions and
obviously they impinge on the workings of the Committee in a sense.
My science goes back a long way pre-GM days. I did a lot of research
at Durham when it was on mutation and strain selection and about
that time there was a major conference in the States and there
was the Asolomar conference and that led to a moratorium on GM
work. Perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration and I have not
got time to talk your Lordships through the history, but it fizzled
out after a couple of years and it was felt quite clearly after
public consultation that the scientists should monitor themselves
and a framework was put up to allow that. I understand that at
the moment a moratorium would be illegal anyway, but leaving that
issue aside, I think it would be a disaster because I think it
would be tantamount to saying, "We are not really sure so
we had better step back and we had better stop this work, we had
better stop the progress of the research and the development of
the applications". I think at the end of the day we have
to be minded about issues like industrial competitiveness and
economic concerns. Even as an academic scientist you cannot be
divorced from economics these days and certainly in my managerial
role then perhaps the best training would be to be an accountant.
If there were to be a moratorium, what good would it do? Where
would it take us? It would allow us to step back, but it would
do no more than that because you have to pick up from where you
left off two years on, five years on and anyway, would it be a
moratorium on growing the crops or on doing the laboratory work
or selling food or would it be the lot? So there are some major
issues there. What would be necessary to say that it could come
to an end? You could not conceivably have it forever anyway. So
what could trigger the end of the moratorium? And if you could
not do any work I am baffled to say how the end would be triggered.
There are a whole host of issues. In my opinion it would be worth
no more than the paper it would be written on because you could
not enforce it globally and we would be very wrong to assume that
it is only in Europe and the States where with political will
we might get some agreement if it was deemed that we should, but
we would be very wrong to say these are the only countries where
the work is going on anyway. So for a whole host of very real
reasons I am totally opposed to a moratorium and I believe that
that is the Government view as well.
717. You were talking about public confidence.
Would not public confidence be improved and public awareness if
there were more GM products in the market? You referred to tomato
paste being the only experience the consumer can have of a direct
GM product that is easy to compare with a non-GM product in price
and quality. The concern is where there is an ingredient of soya
flour. Looking into your crystal ball, what new pure GM products
do you see coming on to the supermarket shelves like tomato paste?
A. I have to
say that the majority of products that I see coming through are
mainly commodity products. I have referred to some lines of potato
for instance. They are not ready yet but they will come through.
There are so many products from soya, the oils and things like
that. I think the phrase nutriceuticals has been coined. There
will always be changes to fatty acid profiles to make them much
more preferable in terms of the problems with the UK diet and
cholesterol, etcetera, etcetera and tailoring them, products with
added vitamins and things like this. So I do not see many totally
pure products coming through. There are undoubtedly vegetable
crops, fruit crops being developed for enhanced yield and enhanced
disease resistance. There is work being done on rice, etcetera.
The ones that are causing concern are things like soya because
you hear that in excess of 60 per cent of all processed food contains
soya, but I would guess if I stood in the street and said, "What
is lecithin?", most people would not know that there was
a connection between that and soya. They might know the connection
of soya oil by virtue of the name. Obviously if Sainsbury's and
Safeway's, the two companies that sell the product, report enhanced
sales of the GM product and I do not believe it
is just on price because certainly in the one of those two supermarkets
where I shop the price is identical, it is just that the conventional
tin of puree is 100 grams and the GM tin is 125, but unless you
hold them side by side most people would be unaware of that. They
are certainly very very clearly labelled.
718. Could I follow up the question about
labelling which you have just been talking about. I wondered if
you could tell us what you think about the labelling of GM and
GM contained foods. It seems to me that the whole point of labelling
is to make it clear to the consumer that it does or does not contain
a significant element of GM.
A. I agree with
your Lordship on that assertion. You are right, the point of labelling
is to make things clear to the consumer and when they have got
clear information they can obviously make a choice. In my opinion
in order to do that all GM foods should be labelled. Obviously
I am aware that discussions are going on in Europe about the practicalities
of thresholds, but it is these very difficult issues that we have
to address when setting thresholds because you cannot say 100
per cent GM free below which labelling would not be required.
When you are looking at a processed product that might contain
soya, a pizza for instance, a very small proportion of that pizza
would be soya flour and a proportion of that could be GM soya.
How far down the line do you go? So the whole issue of thresholds
is very important. I think we need to come to some agreement in
Europeand I know negotiations are underwayof a sensible
way of ensuring that in as far as is reasonably practical a food
labelled GM free means GM free, it means just that. As you know,
there are GM free labels but it is not part of the official labelling
719. Have you a view yourself on what would
be a sensible way of determining that threshold?
A. I think that
we should set a minimum threshold. We should produce a negative
list of products where there is no DNA or no protein present and
that should be published. Refined soya oil is no different in
any way, physical, chemical, nutritional or any other way, from
refined soya whether it comes from GM or non-GM so therefore that
should be part of the list.