EU adopts controversial labelling law for gene food

BRUSSELS, May 26 (Reuters) - European Union farm ministers on Tuesday approved
controversial plans obliging manufacturers to label foods containing
genetically modified maize and soya.

The plans were drawn up by the EU's executive Commission in response to
complaints from consumers, still reeling from Europe's mad cow crisis, that
they no longer knew what they were eating or whether it was safe.

Some 60 percent of processed foods contain soybean derivatives. Many others
contain maize derivatives.

Despite winning ministerial approval, the labelling plans are likely to remain
controversial.

Under the rules, all foods containing gene-changed DNA or proteins must carry
a clear label.

The environmental group Greenpeace, the European consumer association BEUC and
Greens in the European Parliament complain that a majority of gene-altered
products, including such common items as soya oil, margarine and chocolate,
will not be covered by the scheme because the genetic manipulation cannot be
traced.

Some food processing, such as heat treatment, destroys the evidence of genetic
engineering.

Even more controversially, the ministers decided to ditch the Commission's
original proposal that foodstuffs also be labelled if it was unclear whether
the raw materials used had been genetically altered.

One reason is that the United States, a major supplier of grains to Europe,
does not segregate conventional and gene-changed crops in bulk deliveries.
Some European crop producers have also said segregation would be too
expensive.

BEUC and most governments in the 15-nation EU said the Commission's idea of a
"may contain" label was uninformative and the idea was scrapped.

While it has bowed to ministerial pressure, the Commission continues to insist
that ditching the "may contain" option will make the labelling rules
unworkable, a view backed by Sweden, Denmark and Italy.

European Industry Commissioner Martin Bangemann said last week that dropping
the "may contain" option would cause "serious problems" for small food
manufacturers like bakeries which did not have laboratories to test supplies
for the presence of GMOs.

These manufacturers will have to pay for lab tests elsewhere or err on the
side of prudence and label all produce as if it contained GMOS.

Failing that, they might ignore the labelling rules altogether. It would be
well nigh impossible for local food inspectors to keep tabs on them, a
Commission source warned.

Genetic engineering is a sensitive issue in Europe, where Austria and
Luxembourg have banned imports of GMO maize produced by Swiss company Novartis
<NOVZn.S>.

While supporters say gene technology can produce higher crop yields with less
land, water, pesticides and insecticides, opponents worry there could be
environmental and health risk.

BEUC said it was not suggesting GMO crops were unsafe but said producers were
denying consumers the choice of eating them or not by failing to segregate or
label them.

13:17 05-26-98


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