EU Labeling Debate at Fever Pitch

The Guardian (London)
July 2, 2002

Comment & Analysis: Analysis: GM at the crossroads: A crucial vote tomorrow
could determine the future of genetically modified food in Europe - and put
us on a collision course with the US

BY: John Vidal

As the British government begins what it calls a national debate on GM
foods, but which critics argue is a thinly-veiled massaging of the public to
accept them, Europe reaches a crossroads. After years of tortuous debate,
furious argument and heavy lobbying, the full parliament will vote tomorrow
on whether to tighten up the labelling of the controversial foods.

If the commission's proposals are eventually accepted, it could lead to the
US government taking Europe to the World Trade Organisation for allegedly
restraining trade and also appealing to the European court of human rights.
Both the biotech industry and its critics know what is at stake. The US
government has claimed that the labelling proposals could block more than
Dollars 4bn a year of food exports, and those who don't want to see the
spread of the crops recognise it will largely determine whether or not
European consumers buy the foods or if farmers grow them. Whichever way it
goes, it will lead to the lifting next year of the four-year de facto
moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops in Europe. Current EU
regulations require the labelling only of foods or food ingredients which
contain 1% of genetically modified DNA or protein. These can be physically
tested, but it leaves unlabelled a vast number of processed products derived
from GM foods. Vegetable oils and glucose syrup, for instance, are widely
used in cakes, confectionery and soft drinks and may be made from GM maize,
but at the moment escape labelling.

The commission proposes not only that all GM derivatives are labelled but
that a second gap in the present system be plugged too. Tens of thousands of
tons of GM maize and soya are imported into Europe from the US each year to
be fed to poultry and other animals. The commission proposes that all GM
animal feed, and food reared on it, is labelled too.

These proposals horrify GM companies and US agri- business, which from the
start of the food revolution in 1995 have resisted GM labelling but have
been forced onto the back foot by public concern and legislators around the
world. The European status quo is now their fallback position. Any tighter
labelling regime, they and the US government argue, could further set back
their long campaign to have the foods accepted.

The British government, backed by the food standards agency, sides with the
Americans, saying that the proposed regulations would cost too much to
implement, would be unenforceable and open to fraud. They say labelling
should be confined to products that contain GM material which can be
verified by testing, and argue that there are no guarantees that the
proposed EU system would provide consumers with greater choice.

In addition, they say, EU traceability and labelling requirements should not
inhibit developing countries from developing GM technology. This could
become a barrier to trade for farmers in developing countries. Instead of
the commission's proposed far wider labelling, they want to see a new
"GM-free label", which they argue would be easily understood.

The counter argument, pressed by European socialists, greens and some
Liberal Democrats, is based on pub lic opinion and what retailers and some
food processors are already doing. According to a 2001 survey, 94% of
Europeans want the right to choose whether to eat GM food and 71% do not
want to eat it at all. In the UK, 56% want GM labelling even if all traces
of the GM raw materials are destroyed during food processing and 79% think
that meat and other products from animals reared on GM feed should be

The food standards agency dismisses the polls but meets opposition from a
surprising source. The British retail consortium, which represents large
supermarkets, says limiting GM labels to end products in which genetically
modified DNA or protein is detectable is too restrictive and would further
undermine consumer confidence. Whatever its members may privately think
about GM foods, it welcomes the commission's new proposals, since they
reflect what most of its members have been doing for some years for their
own-brand products.

Many supermarkets and food manufacturers, it says, have already removed both
GM soya and maize and their derivatives from products as a direct response
to concerns raised by their customers.

The idea of a GM-free label is also dismissed as a non-starter and is
described by British watchdog group Genewatch as "untenable, undemocratic,
equally open to fraud and even more expensive". Any GM-free label, they say,
will need the same paper trail and is no more than what is required of
organic, halal and kosher foods. In practice, they say, a GM-free label
would mean that some products or ingredients will be labelled as GM, others
as GM-free, but the vast majority will not be labelled, even though they may
contain GM derivatives.

If passed, these two regulations will fundamentally change the way GMOs and
the products derived from them are regulated and controlled in the EU. The
whole process of commercialising GM foods would come under the control of
the new European food authority and any company wanting to grow GM crops in
Europe would only have to apply to one agency, which would send applications
to member states. This is resisted by the British government, partly because
it would undermine its own role as a friend of the US government and
promoter of the crops.

The lobbying in Brussels and elsewhere has been intense on both sides and
the vote, which must come back to the European parliament later in the year,
is thought to be too close to call. Dozens of amendments have been lodged,
many parties and blocks are split, and much could depend on the 29 British
Labour MEPs, who are expected to vote with the European socialist block but
may come under a government whip and could therefore end up voting with the
Conservatives. All parties in the debate are agreed on only one thing - that
the present unsatisfactory impasse on GM crops in Europe must change.

John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor

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