Under present EU rules all genetically modified (GM) products must be assessed for their likely health and environmental impacts before they can be approved for deliberate release into the environment (which includes being placed on the market as food). Any food or food ingredient produced from a GM crop which contains detectable levels of GM material has to be labelled as containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Consumer concern about foods which are derived from GM crops or have been through processes involving use of modern biotechnology but do not have to be labelled have led a number of EU Member States to block further approvals of GM foods in the EU until new rules are agreed which would put consumers in a better position to decide whether or not to avoid food in which genetic modification has played any part in the production chain. The effect has been a moratorium on GM approvals in the EU since 1998. The European Commission and major commodity crop producers (particularly in the US) consider this to be illegal under WTO rules.
The Commission has responded with proposals to extend the labelling rules to all foods produced from GM crops, irrespective of whether GM material is detectable in the finished product, and to apply the regime to animal feed for the first time. Labelling would not be required for food (meat, milk and eggs) from animals fed on GM feed nor to products for which GMOs are used as processing agents (mainly wine and cheese). Since the need for labelling could no longer be determined by laboratory testing, the labelling proposals would be supported by a new traceability regime, which would create an "audit trail" from farm to supermarket shelf. The United States Government, the biotechnology industry and large-scale GM crop growers see the whole package as a possible technical barrier to trade under WTO rules.
The Committee's Report endorses consumers' right to choose between GM and non-GM products on the basis of the best information that it is practicable to make available, but concludes that it is not practicable to legislate for the degree of traceability envisaged by the Commission for bulk commodity imports from the United States and elsewhere.
Instead it recommends retaining the present labelling regime but to build on existing Identity Preserved (IP) and farm assurance schemes as a means of meeting consumers' demands for products which do not involve the use of GM technology. Although such products may command premium prices, the Committee considers it is better to leave these to market forces than to impose burdensome requirements on producers and consumers indiscriminately, which would be the effect of the Commission's proposals.
The Committee considers that use of the term "GM-free" should be restricted to products for which total absence of GM material, including food from animals fed on GM feed or produced with GM processing agents, can be guaranteed at all stages of production.
For practical reasons, the Committee accepts that the present rule which permits up to one per cent of a product to contain GM material without triggering the requirement to label should continue, provided that the material has been through the full EU authorisation procedure. Where this applies, it may be appropriate for the food to be labelled "non-GM", but the Committee feels this term is liable to confuse the consumer. It recommends further market research to establish more user-friendly terminology, backed by better information from the Food Standards Agency. It points out that there is a limit to what can sensibly be put on a label.
The Committee urges the Government to make every effort to persuade other Member States to lift their veto on approvals of new GMOs in return for a more pragmatic approach to traceability and labelling. It also expresses the view that the EU should not seek to influence developing countries' decisions on whether or not to adopt food and agricultural biotechnology practices without recognising the imperatives of developing economies. Finally it calls for closer and more transparent coordination within Government on all aspects of GM policy.