Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 720 - 728)




  720.  So that should not be labelled?

  A.  No, because there is no DNA or no protein present, but where there is DNA or protein present above a threshold—and this is subject to a great deal of scientific argument—it should be labelled. It is not just a question of setting the threshold, it is a question of ensuring that you have got the right analytical techniques and the right regulatory processes to police that threshold. It is one thing saying, "Yes, we have got all these wonderful analytical techniques where we can go down to a picomole level of protein, for instance, or we can go down to 0.001% DNA, that is fine", but if each test costs £80 and it takes three days in the laboratory it is no use as a regulatory tool for a poor trading standards officer or whoever who is trying to enforce the regulation. So until we have got agreement on the levels and then rapid, cheap, reliable testing where we know the degree of certainty of the result as well (because analytical testing is very difficult when you are not testing a pure product and you are not testing a pure product when you are testing a processed food) then there are a lot of issues. The generic point is that I think the thing should be labelled according to regulation whenever there is DNA or protein present. What about catering establishments? You can say the menu should be labelled. What about when you phone up and order a pizza? Should it be delivered with a label, by which time you have already ordered it? And what about the higher class catering establishments where the chef, who is probably a bit of a prima donna, might say, "There is not much gluten in this flour, I will shove an extra pinch of this in or put a few more bits of that in", how on earth could you accurately and sensibly label that? In my mind there are some very major issues, but certainly work is going on in terms of the thresholds.

  721.  The purpose of a threshold is to allow for the adventitious presence. That is the principle of it.

  A.  You have got to think of segregation at every stage in the food chain. Obviously many of these commodity crops are not only grown for food use and as you progressively go through more and more purification and more and more dilution of the GM crop the cost of segregation would be absolutely impossible. So you have got to allow for that adventitious contamination.

  722.  But the case of additives is different. An additive should be labelled in your view?

  A.  Additives and flavourings at the moment are not subject to the labelling regulation which came into force on the 1st September. I understand there are discussions going on in Europe because there are some concerns. Lecithin for instance, which is a soya derivative, it could well be from GM soya depending on the quantity, whether it was classed as an additive or not currently would not necessarily need to be labelled. I have to say that the retail trade, people like the Food and Drink Federation, the Institute of Grocery Distribution, have been labelling on a voluntary basis prior to the 1st September mandatory implementation of 1139 and are very very keen to clarify the labelling issues. I think there is a consumer issue. Many women, men as well to a certain extent, go to the supermarket and they look at the box and all they are really interested in, unless they have got a particular medical problem or interest, is the energy value, will it make them fat or not and then when they look at the energy value, in spite of the current SI units being kilojoules, they do not understand that, they just want kilocalories. That is the extent of the understanding even of something that is important to them. So we have got a very difficult balancing act because we want to label but without them understanding what the label is——you could almost envisage everything coming in a box with a long pull out with all the details of the labelling which is clearly ludicrous. So there are some major issues still around there.

  723.  But in your view should additives and flavourings be labelled?

  A.  Absolutely, yes. Unless we can say to the consumer that where there is a GM product, whether there is protein or whether it is DNA above this particular threshold—when that is agreed—then it will be labelled, then I do not think we are on the road to consumer confidence. When you say that there are rules about labelling but additives are not part of it or flavourings are not part of it then it does not really do anything to encourage consumer confidence in my opinion.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  724.  Do you believe we need traceability as part of the monitoring arrangements for GM foods and how practical is the idea of traceability in GM foods?

  A.  It is not. There has been a lot of talk about traceability on the back of the BSE crisis and traceability to cattle. As I understand it, that has caused enough problems, although that is now being implemented. How do you trace a soya bean is a simple question. It is very very difficult. I think the approach to monitoring certainly that we are considering in ACNFP is not based on traceability but it is much more based on looking at the databases that we have and building on the existing capability of retailers to trace food products. They do have inherent traceability, they need to, in terms of a whole range of safety areas, for product recall for instance. It never ceases to amaze me when there is a problem how quickly the supermarkets can identify a particular batch or a particular production line or a particular supplier and actually recall them. So there is traceability in that sense. I think it is much more important in terms of the GM component, which is obviously where your question is focused, to go for monitoring and I have already referred to that. I have referred to the joint meetings and indeed the monitoring subgroup, representatives from the retailing groups and we have been enormously encouraged by their support and their willingness to help us and their willingness to provide data because there is a great deal of information out there. I have referred several times to the need for databases or the need for more research, but it is also quite important that we do not reinvent the wheel. I heard someone say recently at the open meeting of the Food Advisory Committee, this is not in formal session but just in the corridor, we do not need any more people doing surveys on the street corner in Reading or wherever it might be, but what we want is people to start looking at the data that is already there. One major source of data obviously lies in the loyalty card schemes that many many retailers now have and we have been talking to the retailers. Obviously there are issues about confidentiality of data, but retailers are more than confident about sharing that data on trends and things and enabling us to use that data towards monitoring. So I think the message from ACNFP is monitoring rather than traceability but not forgetting the traceability that is available anyway through the retailers own systems.


  725.  The post-market monitoring that you have referred to and which you are going to make recommendations on, are your recommendations going to include recommendations regarding who should be responsible for monitoring and what monitoring should consist of?

  A.  There are two generic issues. There is one about developing a system for monitoring and we have got to be confident that we have got a realistic and a meaningful system and at the same time that it is workable and then we have got to consider—and I suppose this is where it goes outside the remit of the Committee, this is for discussion by Members (of Parliament) and Ministers—how that is actually going to be undertaken. Obviously there are always throughout all these systems—maybe we can use an existing system in a slightly different way—financial and practical knock-on effects and we cannot divorce the financial cost. So we have got to make realistic recommendations because if we do not there will be questions like who bears the cost and is it right that it should be the taxpayer or the consumer and the sorts of questions that have been aired many times in terms of the Food Standards Agency for instance.

  726.  Do you see the monitoring as being conducted by the companies in the private sector or by a government agency?

  A.  No. Again it is a question of consumer acceptance and I think the monitoring has got to be seen to be independent. I think the data obviously will come from the companies in the private sector, but how it is used I think is quite important and it has got to be used independently. There has been a great deal of talk about an over-arching committee, because it is not just the remit of any one of the advisory committees to which you have referred, we are all concerned with different aspects of monitoring. It should be either the over-arching committee or the agency, if and when the agency comes in.

  727.  So it could be something for the agency?

  A.  I think that would be the most likely location for the monitoring system because we have heard in the plans for the agency that it has made provisions for monitoring.

  728.  That brings us to the end of the questions that we wanted to ask you. Can I thank you, on behalf of the Committee, for the evidence you have given us. It has really been extraordinarily helpful, interesting and clear and you have been with us for almost two hours. We really are immensely grateful to you. Thank you very much.

  A.  Thank you.

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