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Packaging precaution

The EU's policy on labelling GM is likely to come unstuck.

Roger Bate

Topics Science & Tech

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The European Union’s Agriculture Council’s decision in July 2002 to make labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods mandatory has created more problems than it solved.

European Union (EU) health and consumer protection commissioner David Byrne welcomed the decision, but simultaneously deplored ‘scaremongering’, stressing that all genetically modified organisms authorised in the EU have been evaluated for safety. The new rules allegedly cater to consumer concerns, but in effect they accommodate to powerful lobbies – while maintaining doubt on the safety of GM products.

So far, European policy on GM food has been unscientific, misleading and internally inconsistent. It has created costly uncertainty for European food producers and consumers, delayed the uptake of this in developing countries, and has increased trade tensions with its most powerful trading partner, the USA. The labelling decision could well aggravate these tensions to the point of triggering an outright trade war.

The EU’s policy is confused. Catalysts used in the production of a wide range of food products currently sold and consumed in the EU, such as beer and nearly all processed cheese, are currently exempt from the regulations. So making cheese with a GM enzyme like chymosin or aspartic requires no label – even if GM components are traceable in the food. Given the aims of labelling policy, this omission is scientifically illogical, since the cheese would be ‘contaminated’ with GM technology.

But the regulations make more sense in the light of the fact that powerful French and German producers do not currently make food derived from GM produce (unlike American producers), but they do use GM enzymes to make numerous foods. Since European companies don’t want the curse of a GM label on their produce, GM enzyme technology is omitted from the new labelling rules. The EC won’t let European consumers know that German beer and French cheese are likely to be produced with GM technology, but they are happy to single out GM crop products such as soybeans and corn, which are, of course, American.

The regulations also state that something ought to be labelled as GM only if it contains 0.5 percent of ‘adventitious presence’ of GM products. This is ridiculous, because if GM technology itself is harmful, as claimed, then even minuscule amounts like 0.0001 percent or less would be dangerous. Lowering the acceptable content increases the number of products that would have to be labelled. In the end, the Council made matters worse, by setting the threshold at 0.5 percent but limiting the application of this threshold level to three years.

Anyway, mandatory labelling of food should only occur if there is a health concern (as is the case with warnings on cigarette packs). The US Food and Drug Administration, as well as all major international food and health bodies, have declared GM products safe. No European body has found any compelling scientific reason to delay its uptake. But after food scares like BSE, precaution predominates in Europe.

Nearly all US food products destined for export to Europe will now have to be labelled. GM commodity soybeans and GM commodity corn are not separated from conventional produce at source in America, which makes it impossible to say that corn or soybeans are GM free. Products that use GM technology are found in most processed foods. Food manufacturers using American inputs (that is, most large manufacturers) would have to produce one set of labels for America and another for Europe, at significant cost.

This position is strenuously opposed by US producers and the US trade representative to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The tensions surrounding the issue are already high. In October 2002, David Byrne admitted at a press briefing in Washington, DC that if the USA complains to the WTO ‘the legal defences that would be available to the EU would be very narrow’ – effectively acknowledging that the EU would be likely to lose.

The European parliament is in something of a bind. The parliament has continuously demanded that there is a ‘need for information to be based on reliable scientific assessments…and provide consumers with reliable information’. But given the finding’s of the EU agricultural council, and the pressure of big European producers, the parliament will find it hard to pursue a sound scientific line.

If the EU seriously wishes to reassure consumers and encourage choice it should draw up more logical GM labelling regulations. A sensible definition of GM food would mean that producers of non-GM foods would then be able to label their produce correctly and provide a verifiable traceability system for the EU to monitor and regulate. Otherwise the new EU policy may well pave the way for another trade war.

Dr Roger Bate is director of the International Policy Network in Washington, DC and editor of Fearing Food: Risk, Health and Environment (buy this from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

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Topics Science & Tech

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