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GM food labels in Europe could hurt U.S. grain sales

Posted 01/03/2003

Sharon Schmickle Minneapolis Star Tribune  

RENNES, FRANCE -- Chicken packages at the Carrefour supermarkets in northwestern France carry a label that spells potential trouble for Minnesota farmers. "Tracabilite," the label says. In other words, the chicken has a paper trail showing its origin and what it ate before it was butchered. Such farm-to-fork dossiers are appearing in one form or another throughout Europe on foods from Camembert cheese to eggs.. Now Europe is poised to expand the use of such labels so that consumers know when they are buying foods made from genetically modified crops.

They are widely grown in the United States and widely opposed in Europe. Decisions worth billions of dollars a year in trade are pending in the European Union while politicians debate how far to go in labeling foods made from the crops. U.S. officials are grumbling, in not-so-veiled threats, that they may formally complain to the World Trade Organization. New European rules call for labeling food containing 1 percent or more of genetically engineered ingredients.

The debate begins with questions of what to label. Biotech foes want labels not only on the food -- say, corn from plants with inserted DNA. They also want everything from an animal that ate the corn to be labeled. Every egg, pork chop and brick of cheese. Scientists in Europe and the United States say there is no evidence that biotech foods are unsafe. The modification typically involves inserting one or two genes in a plant's DNA to to make a protein that thwarts pests. Such proteins haven't caused known health problems. Still, opposition to the foods is so hardened that science-based arguments are pointless, said Thomas Engelke, a biotechnology adviser to the European Commission. Labeling is a way to to neutralize the issue, he said. "You can say what you want; you don't reach them," he said. "People have to feel they have a choice." European consumers have treated any label that says genetics played a role in creating a food product as the equivalent of a skull and crossbones.

A large majority of them tell pollsters they want nothing to do with the foods.. "I would not eat blue apples or violet chicken meat, either," said Severine Moulin, 29, while pushing a shopping cart through the Carrefour. Many consumers cite environmental reasons for shunning the crops. One worry is that plants in the wild will pick up DNA from their biotech relatives and spread it. Europe jumped into the early efforts to manipulate genes in plants, and 18 biotech farm products were approved for use during the early 1990s. In 1998, after public opinion turned against the technology, the European Union banned imports of new biotech crops and related foods.

The more effective ban, however, has been in the marketplace. Under pressure from biotech foes, stores have refused to stock the foods. Chefs won't cook them. Most farmers won't grow them. Even so, Europe continues to be a major market for crops grown in the U.S. Midwest, where farmers use biotech varieties for three-fourths of the soybeans and one-third of the corn. Minnesota is a leading state in the export of those crops, selling about $1.2 billion overseas each year.

Nationwide, more than $4 billion in trade could be affected by Europe's decisions on traceability, labeling and other issues related to regulation of biotech crops, according to the office of the U.S. trade representative. Europe uses the biotech harvest in ways that can't always be measured in the grocery store -- chiefly for livestock feed, but also for refined oils and other products in which the DNA and related proteins no longer are detectable because they have broken down into compounds that normally are present in food. The upshot is that Europeans indirectly consume more biotech produce than they think, said Joseph Menard, regional president in Rennes for the farm group Federation Regionale des Syndacats d'Expoitants Agricole. "The consumer, when he goes to the supermarket and buys chocolate or any other product, has no idea," he said.

That's what biotech foes are lobbying to change. Traceability has widespread European support for other reasons, including monitoring the origin of meat for mad cow disease. These days, though, when you mention traceability in the offices of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, people bring up genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as Europeans call the crops. Division runs so deep in the European government that "there is no talk between one side and the other," said Dorette Corbey, who represents the Netherlands in the European Parliament. The net effect of several rules under consideration would make it "impossible for the United States to export to Europe," she said. Meanwhile, many supermarkets and their suppliers are adopting traceability on their own.

The Carrefour chain has developed sources in Brazil of GMO-free feed to be used by its meat suppliers, according to Supermarket News. Some traceability systems piggyback on organic rules. In Europe, as in the United States, organic foods are supposed to be GMO-free. Jean-Paul Gabillard -- who grows organic wheat and vegetables near Rennes -- already does the paperwork that begins traceability. He keeps bills for everything he buys for the farm, and inspectors check them. Each crate of his produce carries an identification number that goes on a label in shops so that consumers can trace it back to his farm. At a bustling organic shop near Rennes, labels identify the origins of chicken, milk, butter, eggs and tubs of crème fraîche.

But the vast majority of farms aren't organic, and the prospect of full-scale traceability gives nightmares to some Europeans. It would be "unmanageable to trace back milk and meat to animals that at one time might have eaten GMOs," said Roxanna Feller, a legal adviser in Brussels to farm organizations. A problem for regulators, said Leo Maier of the European Commission's agriculture directorate-general, is that no traces of the inserted DNA or its products are in the meat and milk, and thus there is no way to know who might be cheating. Another problem is that Europe doesn't grow enough animal feed, especially soybeans, an important source of protein. "Are you going to starve half the cows in Europe?" said David Bowe, a British member of the European Parliament. "Where are you going to get protein for your animal feed? Soy! Everyone knows that." The government probably won't resolve the labeling debate until late next year, Maier said. Other observers said it could take even longer because of the complexities of the European regulatory system.

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