Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Second Report


CHAPTER 2: POINTS FROM THE EVIDENCE

28. In this chapter we record briefly the views of the main stakeholders on the question with which this Report is primarily concerned—whether the Commission's proposals represent a practical and proportionate response to consumers' legitimate wish to exercise choice in relation to GM and non-GM food and feed (cf paragraphs 0-0 above). Not all of the evidence we received, though interesting and important in a wider context (e.g. safety testing, the approvals regime and the role of the European Food Safety Authority), was directly relevant to this question.

The scientific community

29. The Royal Society of Edinburgh pointed out that the EU imports each year 37 million tonnes of maize, soya, rapeseed or derived food products. The likelihood of adventitious presence of GM material was inevitable. As some consumers object to the application of GM technology as well as having concerns about the risk to environment and health, the Society favoured a system of labelling which identified products as made either "with genetic engineering" or "without genetic engineering".[13]

30. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) said that zero level contamination of GM food and feed was not practical. It suggested that GM feed could have a higher threshold without the animal products themselves approaching the one per cent threshold that is permitted for a food ingredient. Alternatively, it suggested that the application of the one per cent threshold to feed as well as food might simply reflect the practical consideration that one per cent was about the current minimum limit of reliable quantification of transgenic sequences in complex samples.[14]

31. The Royal Society[15] drew attention to its 1998 report Genetically modified plants for food use[16], in which it concluded that the use of GM plants potentially offered benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health, but recognised that there was public concern about potential environmental effects of GM technology and the safety of GM food for human consumption. In relation to labelling and traceability the report's conclusions were:

  • Strong support—in the interests of consumer choice—for the labelling of foods containing GM material where the foodstuff was substantially changed from that of its conventional counterpart.
  • Recognition that segregation of commodity crops and derivatives through long supply chains on a global scale would cause difficulties of traceability for those manufacturers and retailers who wished to source products which did not contain GMOs or their derivatives.
  • There were problems in relation to the complexity of international trade, detection limits, complexity of product formulations or processing techniques.
  • For enforcement purposes it would be essential to recognise a minimum level, based on scientifically validated testing methods, for adventitious presence of GM material, below which a product could be considered to be free of GM derivatives.

32. The Royal Society had since produced an update[17] to the 1998 report. This did not deal specifically with the issues of labelling and traceability but inter alia stressed the need for criteria for safety assessments to be made explicit. It noted that changes in the nutritional status of GM foods could occur both in GM and in conventional, non-GM food; eating GM DNA was no different from eating DNA from a wide range of sources. There was no evidence that GM foods caused allergic reactions, but it was suggested that vulnerable groups such as infants needed special guidelines. The Institute of Food Research echoed these findings.[18] The Royal Society planned to review developments on the environmental aspects of GM crops separately.

Central and Local Government

33. The view of the UK Government, in a memorandum submitted by the Food Standards Agency,[19] was that the proposal to label ingredients where no GM material was present was neither enforceable, practical nor proportional. Full traceability of food and feed was unlikely to be achievable. The current situation was unsatisfactory; there was an urgent need to clear the approvals backlog and end the de facto moratorium.

34. On the other hand, FSA considered that the Commission's proposals did not go far enough for those who wanted to avoid food produced by using GM technology, such as cheese, meat, milk and eggs from animals fed GM animal feed. The Agency therefore wished to see the Commission's proposals supplemented with a "GM-free" labelling option. However, supply chains in developing countries in particular lacked formal contractual arrangements as produce was sourced from hundreds of producers. There were therefore limitations to the extent that unique identifier codes[20] could be an effective tool for the traceability of commodity crops which were traded on the open market world wide and which passed through a complex supply chain. The Agency agreed with the Commission that non-EU-approved GMOs would also need a one per cent threshold.

35. The Minister for Environment, the Rt Hon Michael Meacher MP, told the Committee that the traceability proposals were "probably not practicable, and . . . certainly disproportionate" (Q 193). On the one per cent threshold for adventitious presence of GM material, he confirmed the FSA's view that this was the best that current technology could reliably offer, but he felt that consumers had the right to expect the threshold to be lowered as technology improved (Q 201).

36. The FSA Chairman, Sir John Krebs, described the proposals as a "cheat's charter". He said: "If the Commission's proposals were implemented, then in a couple of years' time people would turn round to us and say 'Well, how are you checking that actually these products that claim to contain no GM-derived products are in fact doing that?' I would have to say 'Well, I am sorry, there is no way of guaranteeing it other than a paper trail which refers to a batch of soya grown perhaps in South America, shipped in a bulk transporter, processed in a bulk mill, then shipped in a large container arriving at the door of Europe when, under the European Commission proposals, the traceability starts.'. . ." (Q 218).

37. He went on to illustrate the point: "Last month we published a research study in which we had looked at the GM soya content of 200-odd examples of baked goods from the shelves of the shops of Britain. We found that about 15 per cent of those baked goods contained small traces of GM soya. Sometimes the soya was actually in wheat flour, so it was an adventitious presence in a wheat product. In three out of the 200 or so cases the presence of GM soya exceeded the one per cent threshold. Now all of those products were products which were produced through a traceability and IP system. . . . This is to me a practical demonstration that traceability and IP does not give a guarantee." (Q 219) He added: "Even for the major retailers, whilst certainly they have more capability to deploy resources right back through the chain and demand proper systems from their suppliers, even there the evidence I have heard from the retailers themselves is that they cannot provide guarantees in many cases." (Q 222)

38. The Local Authorities Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards (LACOTS) felt that "non-GM" and "GM-free" were likely to convey the same message to the consumer. An international standard was required. It was desirable to specify standard criteria for determining levels of GM contamination. Traceability was feasible so long as there were effective systems in countries of origin; imported commodities would therefore need certificates of compliance. Local authorities would need significant additional resources to meet the requirements of sampling and analysis, which could range from £600 to £1000 per sample.[21]

Consumers and environmental organisations

39. The Consumers' Association (CA) argued that public concern could not be resolved by science alone. There was a need for an open, transparent, inclusive procedure reflecting social attitudes and beliefs. A clearer idea of consumers' attitudes to GM developments was needed. Labelling was only one aspect of consumer choice. Identity Preservation systems should be encouraged and supply chains developed. However, confidence and acceptance of GM foods would depend on the extent to which GM products were perceived to offer benefits to consumers when balanced against perceived risks. CA considered that GM-derived food should definitely be labelled, and that the one per cent threshold for unapproved GMOs—provided that the unapproved varieties had undergone a risk assessment—would provide some reassurance.[22]

40. In oral evidence CA's representatives cited evidence from opinion surveys which strongly supported the case for labelling (QQ 1-4, 10). They criticised the FSA's proposal for a "GM-free" label, which they felt would mislead the consumer and create a niche market (as with organic food) for which consumers would have to pay a higher price. Ms Sue Davies said this would be unfair, "because most people want to buy the standard products which were on the market before GM came into food products. . . . If something did say 'GM-free', for it not to be misleading it would be essential that there has been no GM near the product" (Q 21).

41. The National Consumer Council (NCC)[23] did not support the one per cent threshold. There was clear consumer support for the right to know whether food was from GM crops or was the produce of animals fed on GM feed. NCC urged the Commission to bring forward consistent proposals on enzymes at an early date. Like CA, it did not consider the FSA's proposal for "GM-free" to be helpful. Low income customers would be disadvantaged. Once a traceability system was established and ongoing, the costs should be minimal for small businesses.

42. NCC did not accept the proposal to set a threshold for non-approved GM material until full authorisation was in place. A zero tolerance threshold for non-approved varieties should remain in force. There was a need to clarify more fully the roles and responsibilities of, and liaison between, the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), risk management bodies and Member States' competent authorities in order to facilitate greater consumer and scientific confidence in the whole risk analysis process. NCC advocated consumer representation on any risk assessment bodies and scientific panels responsible for conducting assessment under the approval process. Assessments should be conducted in an open, transparent and inclusive way.

43. Friends of the Earth (FOE) welcomed the extension of the present regime to GM derivatives. They objected to the one per cent threshold for unapproved GMs, which they argued would water down unacceptably the deliberate release Directive. They did not regard it as reasonable to put the burden of avoiding GMOs on to the consumer.[24]

44. FOE's GM campaigner Adrian Bebb disagreed with the FSA's criticisms of "paper trails", pointing to the fact that such systems existed and worked for products such as organic, fair trade and kosher food. On the question of bulk commodity crops, his colleague Peter Riley commented: "Increasingly companies will be looking to go to particular farmers to supply them with what they want because of the uncertainty that the commodity market provides. This is exactly what companies like Tesco are doing—they have gone down to the farm level in Brazil to get their soya at the moment. If farmers see there is a business to be made by providing European consumers with what they want . . . they will provide the companies with the assurances that (they) are looking for." (QQ 100, 106)

45. Greenpeace argued that Article 153 of the EC Treaty required that consumers should have the right to know what was in their food. They felt the Commission's proposals did not go far enough. Eggs, meat, milk etc from animals consuming GM feed should be labelled, and the one per cent threshold was considered too high. IP traceability systems need not add significantly to the cost of products as they only added paperwork, the cost of which could be incorporated into the invoicing process. They wanted to see national authorities playing a bigger role in the initial evaluation of new GMOs.[25]

46. Neither GeneWatch[26] nor the Genetic Engineering Alliance[27] supported the FSA. They considered that labels should be introduced for cheese and all other products from GM technology. It was unacceptable that the majority of consumers should pay more for a "GM-free" option. It was more appropriate that GM foods became the niche market. The "GM free" option denied the low-income consumer the right to purchase such products as they would be priced too high. They would like meat, milk and eggs from animals fed on GM feed to be so labelled and wanted the moratorium to continue.

The food chain

FARMERS

47. The National Farmers' Union[28] described how farmers and growers had developed farm assurance schemes. It welcomed other food industry initiatives for Identity Preservation as a means of ensuring meaningful labelling. Transmission of information on GMOs could possibly be integrated with other on-farm traceability systems, such as the UK's assured combinable crops scheme. The cost of testing for the presence of all GM varieties would be extremely high and appropriate reference material would need to be lodged with the Commission. The NFU was disappointed that clear guidelines on the use of the term "GM-free" had not been addressed in the Commission's proposals. This term should mean total freedom from any linkage with any GMO whether directly incorporated into the final product or used in its production.

48. The National Farmers' Union of Scotland[29] welcomed the Commission's proposals and believed that the labelling requirements should meet the needs of most consumers. It also welcomed the proposal to provide the same level of assurance for both food and feed. Zero tolerance was, however, impossible to achieve without 100 per cent testing. The moratorium on EU approvals was illogical, given that some GM-containing food and feed products were already on the market.

49. The Ulster Farmers' Union drew attention to the serious cost implications for UK farmers. The EU needed to import protein as it was only one-third self-sufficient. The UK farming industry would be pricing itself out of the market if the Commission's proposals were implemented.[30]

THE FOOD SUPPLY INDUSTRY

50. The Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops[31] (SCIMAC)—a grouping of industry organisations (including the National Farmers' Union) along the UK farm supply chain—has drawn up guidelines for the identity preservation of GM crops from initial seed stock through to delivery of the harvested crop ex-farm, thus establishing a framework for continued identity preservation and traceability beyond that point. The measures specified build on existing, proven systems within UK agriculture and combine provisions for record-keeping and transfer of information with specific requirements for on-farm management practice. SCIMAC stressed that "labelling exists to promote choice, not to provide a route for denial of access and choice." It considered that a meaningful and enforceable framework of consumer information could be delivered only by regulations which focused on the product rather than the production process. It therefore opposed a traceability system which could not be verified through end-product testing, since that could lay the way open to fraud and confuse rather than inform consumers. Instead it favoured an enforcement regime based on auditing of records and stock inspections during spot checks.

51. The British Society of Plant Breeders and the British Sugar Beet Seed Producers' Association[32] suggested it was not the responsibility of regulators to attempt to gauge or reflect prevailing public attitudes or consumer preferences. They noted that certain details of the traceability regime were left flexible in the Commission's proposals and would to some extent depend on how individual Member States decided to implement them. Implementation should not seek to re-invent the wheel but should build upon proven systems of traceability. Identity preservation (IP) was already established within the food chain.

52. The United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association[33] (UKASTA) argued that there were distinctions between food and feed which the proposals did not adequately recognise. There were many opportunities for feed to be commingled. The proposals could involve great cost and delay, with no apparent benefit. The UKASTA Feed Assurance scheme and the Feed Materials Assurance scheme were the key to the non-GM sourcing and traceability of feed materials. Clumsy legislation could harm their development and expansion. The Grain and Feed Trade Association (GAFTA), however, considered that a single food and feed approval system was sensible.[34]

53. GAFTA raised a number of points on the traceability proposals. They felt that their application to imports into the EU could only be viewed as a technical barrier to trade since the scientific basis was invalid—they were not able to address environmental damage or human health. They offered consumer choice with no scientific validity and therefore potentially violated WTO rules, laying the EU open to challenge under the WTO dispute procedures.[35]

FOOD PROCESSORS AND RETAILERS

54. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) approved of the Food Standards Agency's preference for retaining existing labelling arrangements with the addition of a "GM-free" labelling scheme. It considered the Commission's proposals disproportionate, unworkable and unenforceable, and saw no need to label derived products.[36] The Provision Trade Federation said that importers could not guarantee the GM status of a derived product. The Federation welcomed the fact that the Commission's proposals did not extend to food produced "with a GMO" (as opposed to "from a GMO"). A label which identified cheese, meat, etc as derived from animals fed on GM feed would be detrimental to sales.[37]

55. The British Retail Consortium (BRC)[38] welcomed the inclusion of feed in the proposed new arrangements. BRC believed that the best way of ensuring that products did not contain GM ingredients was to have a robust identity preserved system. BRC and FDF had published a technical standard based on best practice to assist in the supply and traceability of non-GM material. BRC expected that this would be widely adopted throughout the EU on a voluntary basis but would prefer to see it officially recognised. It considered the "GM-free" status favoured by the FSA was unattainable for commodity crops.

56. Mr John Longworth, group trading law and technical director for Tesco and representing BRC, was more optimistic about the practicality of ensuring traceability as the supply chain expanded and became more complex. He said that there were a number of Asian countries that were keen not to have GM crops because of the importance of their export trade in edible oils. He added that there was a potential for parts of Brazil to maintain production of non-GM crops for a long time (Q 76).

57. The British Beer and Pub Association, speaking for several trade associations from the retail trade and restaurant catering sector, believed it was vital for Member States to have sufficient flexibility to introduce their own legal requirements, appropriate to national culture and traditions, on labelling of food served in restaurant and other catering outlets, whether pre-packaged or not.[39] The Scotch Whisky Association felt that the requirement to label food not containing detectable GM material could set a dangerous precedent; the proposal was not based on science or justified on health and safety grounds. There were practical difficulties in crowding too much information on labels. Association members might be forced into IP schemes which would be unworkable, given the long time that whisky took to produce and mature, and would argue that the proposed regulations should apply only to spirits distilled after the date of implementation.[40]

The biotechnology industry

58. Monsanto[41] suggested that a specific (non-GM) class of feedstuffs would reduce confusion. The one per cent threshold had been established to allow consumer choice, not safety. It was inevitable that there would be differences around the world in interpreting and implementing the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol[42]. Similarly Syngenta[43] said that labelling of GM products was not a food safety issue but a consumer choice issue. The one per cent threshold would require further revision because of future changes in cost and consumer expectations. The purpose of the EFSA should be to harmonise the risk assessment process and to ensure scientific scrutiny of information. Risk assessment conducted by OECD countries, not just EU, should be acceptable for unauthorised GM material.

The United States Government and major US stakeholders

59. The American Soybean Association[44] was concerned about excessive documentation, which they estimated could involve several thousand different farms in one shipment alone[45]. Identity Preserved systems were in their view the only possible approach. The current EU moratorium was preventing US and EU farmers from gaining access to benefits from up to twelve products which had been cleared by the EU scientific experts.

60. The United States Embassy, in a memorandum submitted on behalf of the US Government,[46] commented that the proposed regulations were more restrictive than necessary. The burden to be placed on suppliers did not reflect considerations of health, safety and environment on the one hand and those of perceived consumer desires on the other. Traceability and labelling would be very expensive to implement and there was room for significant fraud. It was not possible to achieve "no risk": the one per cent threshold could not reliably be tested or consistently met. "Genetically modified" applied to all breeding methods and "biotech" was considered a more relevant term. The US asked why foods produced through biotechnology required to have additional labelling requirements, and who determined when a biotech food could "give rise to ethical or religious concerns".[47] The US did not believe that expanding mandatory traceability and labelling requirements to animal feed was justified or that it would enhance public health.

61. In oral evidence, Mr Peter Kurz, Minister-Counsellor for Agricultural Affairs, said: "Frankly, it is not clear to us what risks the proposed labelling requirements are attempting to address. . . . If consumer choice is truly the objective of the proposal, how will this regulation increase consumer choice given that even under less stringent EU labelling regulations processors and retailers are re-formulating rather than labelling, due to perceived concerns about the customer reaction and market share?[48] The United States would argue that it is equally important to give guidance as to what would constitute a food that has not been produced through biotechnology." (Q 131)

62. He suggested that identity preserved (IP) schemes were "the only way to assure that the consumer really gets biotech-free foods" (Q 144). Asked to comment on the argument that the onus should be on producers of GM crops to provide the information which is required by the consumer rather than expecting the consumer to pay a premium for IP lines, he drew a parallel with organic food: "Hopefully with organics we will move to a point where, if the demand is sufficient, the premium that has to be paid will be relatively modest and then hopefully that would serve as a model for biotech foods as well. We are also dealing with the market place here and the realities of production of grain and foodstuffs, and to ask producers to take the onus on themselves in view of the fact that this is only a relatively small percentage of the world market asking for biotech-free foods frankly is not going to happen." (QQ 145-6)

63. Asked if the US would accept the Commission's proposals if it meant that the moratorium on GMO approvals could be lifted, Mr Kurz said the US administration was concerned that they would "set a precedent that could also be applied to non-agricultural industries. . . . Frankly, we do not see any ground for compromise in these proposals." He added that they agreed with Sir John Krebs's view that the proposals were unworkable. (Q 141)

Other views

64. The Rev Professor Michael Reiss[49] commented that most of the objections to the Commission's proposals had been based on practicality, fairness and cost. One argument for labelling was that it was ethical and because people wanted it. Surveys of the public did not provide the relevant information any more than the answer to the question "do you want lower taxes?" Choice did not always require mandatory labelling. It was better to permit retailers and restaurants to decide whether to label. Those who wanted to know would seek those who did so label. The duty of regulatory process was to prevent harm and to provide special protection for those unable to take legal actions against those responsible for harm. There was therefore (as the Royal Society had suggested[50]) a role for mandatory labelling to prevent harm such as allergenic effects and to provide extra safeguards for vulnerable groups, particularly infants.


13   p 117 at paragraph 15; p 116 at paragraph 7. Back

14   p 84 at paragraphs 6-7. Back

15   p 115. Back

16   Genetically modified plants for food use, Statement 2/98, The Royal Society, London, September 1998. Back

17   Genetically modified plants for food use and human health-an update, Policy document 4/02, The Royal Society, London, February 2002. Back

18   p 99. Back

19   p 55ff. Back

20   See paragraph 16. Back

21   LACOTS response (4 September 2001) to the Food Standards Agency's consultation on the Commission's proposals (not printed)Back

22   Points from CA's response (September 2001) to FSA consultation (not printed)Back

23   p 102ff. Back

24   pp 29-31. Back

25   pp 94-98. Back

26   pp 89-91. Back

27   pp 91-92. Back

28   pp 109-11. Back

29   pp 112-13. Back

30   UFU response (31 August 2001) to FSA consultation (not printed)Back

31   pp 120-23. Back

32   pp 86-89. Back

33   pp 130-32. Back

34   p 93. Back

35   p 94. Back

36   Unprinted material summarised at p 13. Back

37   pp 113-14. Back

38   pp 27-28. Back

39   p 85. Back

40   pp 118-19. Back

41   pp 99-102. Back

42   See paragraph 16 and Box 3. Back

43   pp 126-130. Back

44   p 77ff. Back

45   A single boatload of commodity soybeans can contain 50,000 tonnes of soybeans, of which each tonne would contain over 7 million beans. In a shipment from the US the beans will have been collected and mixed together at every point of a ten-stage handling system from several thousand different farms. Each farm will typically have grown between six and ten different varieties-which could be either biotech or non-biotech, according to practice on the individual farm-from the several thousand soybean varieties available to growers. (ASA evidence, p 80.) Back

46   pp 39-43. Back

47   COM(2001)425 final, Article 14(2)(b). Back

48   This comment confirmed what Mr Longworth told the Committee about Tesco's decision to remove GM ingredients from its own-brand lines, after which others followed suit (Q 69). Back

49   pp 114-15. Back

50   See paragraph 32. Back


 
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