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EU Labeling Laws Threaten Future of Biotech Foods

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 11, 2001; Page E01

BRUSSELS -- The European Union is preparing to enact strict new controls on
the sale of genetically engineered foods, which could trigger a major trade
dispute with the United States and deal a serious setback to the booming
biotech industry.

Faced with growing public alarm about food safety, the European Parliament
is expected to approve a resolution this month that will impose tough
labeling and tracing requirements on genetically modified products. The 15
member governments will then be asked to make their national laws conform to
the new rules by next year.

For the past three years, the EU has banned new bioengineered seeds and
crops while it writes laws to govern the sale and distribution of biotech
products. As a result of the ban, U.S. corn growers have been shut out of
markets worth about $200 million a year. U.S. soybean growers, on the other
hand, have been allowed to keep selling a genetically modified variety that
was previously approved and earns about $1.5 billion a year in European
markets.

While designed to end the moratorium, the EU's new laws may cause wider
disruptions in transatlantic trade. Labels would be required for any food
item that contains genetically modified substances, even when they cannot be
detected because of processing. That means a candy bar would have to carry
the special label if it contained sugar from genetically engineered beets or
corn.

With U.S. farmers and biotech advocates urging the Bush administration to
take a tough stand against any damage to American exports, EU officials say
they are aware of the danger of a trade conflict with the United States at a
time when the global economy is threatened with recession and protectionist
pressures are rising on both sides of the Atlantic.

But they also insist that governments in Europe, which are struggling to
surmount a crisis in confidence following several food-related scandals,
cannot ignore public demands for health assurances, even at the risk of
temporary trade disruptions.

"There are deep fears among public opinion in Europe that are much more
complex than in the United States," Romano Prodi, the president of the EU's
executive commission, said in an interview. "This is why I am asking for a
special panel of the best American and European scientists to gather all
evidence on the quality and safety of genetically modified foods. We need a
lot more physical evidence before making judgments."

U.S. trade officials raised objections with their EU counterparts in a
discussion last month about an initial draft version of the new
requirements. "In the form it was presented, it would disrupt a healthy
amount of trade," said one U.S. official, who said Washington is waiting to
see a new version from the Europeans.

Americans have been growing and consuming genetically modified foods such as
herbicide-tolerant soybeans and pest-repellent corn for several years, with
little evidence of risks to human health or the environment. But taco shells
and other corn products had been recalled nationwide because they were found
to contain genetically modified type of corn, and the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration is investigating complaints from several dozen people who
believe they suffered allergic reactions from eating such products.

In Europe, polls show a majority of people believe that products made from
genetically modified organisms are hazardous to their health. They reject
claims from European scientists that engineered crops may be less dangerous
because they contain fewer toxic pesticides or herbicides.

"Many Europeans tend to lump together genetically modified foods with the
same kind of industrial farming techniques that are being blamed for causing
the recent epidemics that have devastated the meat trade," said Helmut
Wagner, European affairs spokesman for Monsanto Corp., an exporter of
bioengineered seeds whose grain stores of genetically modified soybeans and
corn were recently attacked by arsonists in Italy.

U.S. exporters fear that the labeling and tracing requirements will be a
major obstacle to trade. The EU law for animal feeds may soon require
separate rules for processed foods, such as corn gluten, and force exporters
to produce a costly and detailed tracking record for their products through
the entire growing and distribution chain.

"The EU system is just not functioning," said Fred Yoder, chairman of the
biotech working group for the National Corn Growers Association. "Since
August 1998, the EU has failed to complete the procedures to market a single
crop product created through biotechnology. And now, the EU is drafting new
rules that threaten to disrupt more trade."

EU officials insist that they are not engaging in protectionist tactics,
noting that their own regulatory agencies have approved the planting, import
and consumption of at least some varieties of genetically modified corn and
soybeans. They also claim that since the EU has banned the use of animal
remains as a protein source in livestock feed since the epidemic of "mad
cow" disease, there will be much greater demand for imported soybeans even
of the biotech varieties.

"This is not about protectionism, because we are responding to the demands
of consumers and not some producer lobby that wants to keep out American
goods," observed Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, one of
Europe's most prominent Green Party leaders. "This is about a free market,
and in that sense the European consumer has every right to say no to
genetically modified foods."

Staff writer Paul Blustein contributed to this report from Washington.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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