Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Austrian Embassy


  Austria wants GMO products not to disrupt broad social institutions and conventions ("Sozialverträglichkelt") and stresses the lack of knowledge on environmental effects through an emphasis on ecological data and ecological balance in Risk Assessment procedures. The approach to Risk Assessment is characterized by preventing adverse effects according to the state of the art in science and technology. Austria interprets the scope of directive 90/220 more broadly and also assesses agronomic effects, such as influences on the use of pesticides, to determine the acceptability of products.


  The European Commission announced in its communication of December, 1996 on the review of directive 90/220/EEC(COM(96)630) to come with a proposal to amend this directive, which concerns the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms, during 1997. The Commission has made such a proposal in December 1997.

  3. In general, Austria appreciates the EC's efforts to improve and adapt the directive according to scientific progress. In particular to include principles for risk assessment into the directive seems highly important, as this substantiates the precautionary principle and addresses one of the major weaknesses in the current directive and is expected to harmonise the risk assessment procedure throughout the Community.

  4. For areas where no short or long term risks can be envisaged administrative procedures can be streamlined in order to benefit from the chances of modern biotechnology.

Control of products and regional specificity:

  5. Consequently, modifications of the directive should only be done where they do not impose increased risks for the human health and the environment. As, furthermore, increasing amount of various products may be put on the market in the near future Austria welcomes the effort to address adequate ways of a control and monitoring of these products under the measures of directive 90/220. Furthermore, the improvement of the directive will have to take into account the highly different ecological situations and agricultural practices in the member states. Therefore, as part of a consent to specific products, the possibility for specific conditions which address the different biotic regions in Europe should be established as a provision.


  6. A coherent European Union approach for labelling of products produced from GMOs across the different sectors regulating the use of GMOs is supported. The new labelling requirements should provide clear, honest and neutral information about the GMO origin of products. With respect to segregation and the provision of labelling certain products with "may contain GMOs" we still have great problems with the proposed labelling regime, taking in particular account of the Decision of the Council of Ministers for Agriculture of 26 May concerning labelling of foodstuffs produced from genetically modified maize and soy beans.

  7. The interplay with other Community legislation whether already in force or still under development (like Novel Seed or Novel Feed) will have to be made very clear and transparent. Following the adoption of the Novel Foods Regulation (258/97) the interplay between this Regulation and Directive 90/220/EEC has been the subject of interpretative documents by Commission services, indicating that some clarification still is required.


  8. The proposed change from a type 3a to type 3b procedure for the Regulatory Committee is welcome and is expected to raise public confidence in the decision procedure.


  9. We highly appreciate the endeavours of the Commission to establish confidence of consumers in modern biotechnology by the new provisions of the directive to make the EU decision-procedures more transparent for the public. A similar transparency should be established in the selection of experts for the scientific committees and on the way how opinions of the scientific committees are taken.

  10. Concerning the Novel Food Regulation 258/1997 Austria regrets that clear uniform principles or guidelines to implement this regulation still are missing, as the legal text of the regulation raises a lot of interpretative questions.

  11. Austria is of the opinion that any novel food produced from genetically modified organisms in which foreign generic material (DNA) or proteins (resulting from the genetical modification) can be detected by analytical methods has to be labelled accordingly in order to give consumer the free choice to decide himself in favour of such a product or not. Such labelling should also be applied for additives, flavouring substances or extraction solvents which for the time being are exempted from the Novel Food Regulation.

  12. Concerning labelling of foodstuffs produced from genetically modified soybeans and maize Austria congratulates the UK-Presidency for having put forward a compromise text which was adopted by the Council (Agriculture) on 25 May 1998 and which seems also to be a good basis for labelling further novel food products being marketed according to Regulation 258/1997.

  As mentioned above this labelling should in any case also comprise labelling of additives, flavouring substances and extraction solvents.


  13. The Austrian Genetechnology Act, which came into force in 1995, is a clear and comprehensive legal basis for every industry and research. Nevertheless genetechnology has been the subject of highly controversial public discussions in Austria in particular concerning its applications in agriculture and in food production.

  14. Public acceptance of these applications in Austria has slumped down to a very low level.

  15. In particular last year the Austrian Parliament had to deal with three major postulations of the Austrian Public Initiative against genetechnology (no production of genetically modified foodstuffs, no deliberate releases of GMOs in agriculture and no patenting of life).

  16. As general prohibitions are not compatible with European law the Austrian Parliament has strived to regain some confidence of the Consumer in genetechnology by passing an important amendment to the Austrian law on genetechnology on 16 April 1998.

  This amendment contains the following major new elements:

  17. New procedural rights for the participation of neighbours, involved communities and provinces in the administrative procedure for a permit for deliberate releases of genetically modified plants;

  18. higher transparency concerning information of the population on all documentations in connection with the application for such a permit;

  19. nomination of additional experts in the field of ecology and five related sciences to the scientific committees established to assess the applications and their consequences for health and environment;

  20. higher penalties for illegal deliberate releases;

  21. establishment of new rules for liability (strict liability without a prove of fault) concerning damages to health and environment caused by experiments with GMOs or by the deliberate release of GMOs.

  22. We think that in particular this new law on liability for such damages might be an important step in the endeavours of Austria and the European Union to arrive finally at a harmonized general regulation of liability for damages on the environment.

  23. Concerning the effects of a strict regulation like the Austrian Act on Genetechnology on the different sectors of industry and competition Austria holds the opinion that strict but applicable and transparent rules on genetic engineering activities are also in line with the interests of industry and research in connection with adequate information and education of the public by all stakeholders involved.

5 June 1998

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