Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Food and Drink Federation


  1.1 The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is the leading representative of the UK food and drink manufacturing industry. Our interest in genetic modification in agriculture is therefore as users of primary produce as a basic raw material for our products. In order to meet the needs and demands of our customers, be they further down the processing chain, retailers or end consumers, our members need to ensure a supply of safe, wholesome raw materials at acceptable prices all year round, taking account of seasonal availability.

  1.2 In our response to the Select Committee on Science and Technology's inquiry into the Regulation of the UK Biotechnology Industry and Global Competitiveness (April 1993), we stated that the use of genetic modification (GM) for precision breeding of food crops to introduce defined improved traits could offer benefits to agriculture, manufacture and consumer appeal: reduction in the need for pesticides in agriculture and distribution; reduced fertiliser needs; more efficient use of enzymes in processing; better product shelf life in distribution and the home; better product flavour and texture.

  1.3 This remains our position on the use of this technology, but in the five years since the previous inquiry many developments have taken place, notably the introduction of the first GM products on the supermarket shelves; the importation of the first GM commodity crop from the USA; the implementation of EC Regulation No 258/97 concerning novel foods and novel food ingredients; and the impact on consumer confidence in the food supply of the 1996 BSE crisis.

  1.4 This chain of events has caused us to scrutinise very carefully the implications for the food manufacturing industry of further planning of GM crops, not least because of pressure in our own sector from retailers, consumer and environmental groups. Our views with regard to the regulation of genetic modification in agriculture, whilst based on scientific principles, will necessarily be tempered by commercial and political pressures.


(a) Research

  2.1 FDF is not directly involved in research in this area. However, agricultural competitiveness and food cost and quality are directly related. It is therefore important to our industry that the agricultural research base is at the cutting edge of science and technology whilst firmly adhering to the principles of safety and good environmental practice.

  2.2 FDF understands that the application of directive 90/219 on the continued use of genetically modified organisms, implemented in the UK by the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 1992, has impacted on plant breeding at R&D level though the Directive was intended to control micro-organisms only. As more than 20 years' experience has now been gained, it would be appropriate for legislation in this area to be reviewed in the light of developments and understanding of the technology and a history of safe use to simplify and rationalise accordingly. Regrettably, public mistrust of the use of genetic modification in food and agricultural production will inevitably result in any changes to the legislation being politicised instead of updated in recognition of improvements in the understanding of the science.

(b) Release into the environment

  2.3 FDF monitors the work of the advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE) and has held discussions with its Chairman, Professor John Beringer. FDF has been impressed by the professionalism of ACRE and the Committee's refusal to become embroiled in issues outside its statutory remit. ACRE's decision and reports are an excellent source of information for our sector of the industry and we understand its work to be generally respected. Its recent decision to "name and shame" a number of companies who were in breach of their field trial conditions is applauded as a reflection of the Committee's assiduousness, impartiality and transparency.

  2.4 Following adoption of the Regulation on novel foods and novel food ingredients (258/97) in January 1997, it was clear that Directive 90/220 on Deliberate Releases to the Environment would need to be updated in respect of marketing consents where provisions had been superseded by Regulation 258/97. However, as with Directive 90/219, the Directive has been politicised and procedures are being rendered more onerous on grounds of safety and potential environmental damage, though no such grounds have been demonstrated. Opponents of the technology cite the BSE crisis and the "precautionary principle" as the basis for exercising caution. Such an approach risks impeding agricultural progress and competitiveness in the EU whilst having no effective influence over developments elsewhere. The food manufacturing sector risks being disadvantaged, not to say confused, in international markets and global trading situations where it is unclear whether or not a GM crop has been authorised for use or growing in the EU. The very different approach to the regulation of GM crops in North America means that a number of varieties are already being grown and traded there. In the event of a GM crop not being authorised for release under 90/220, but known to be commingled with the conventional supply, we would be prevented from buying from that supply. However, in the case of oilseeds, for example, there would be nothing to stop oil produced from that crop being imported into Europe, or indeed any food product in which it was used as an ingredient. Such a situation risks serious trading difficulties, as well as threatening the competitiveness of the UK (and EU) processing industry.

  2.5 We are frequently asked by our members about the status of authorisations of GM varieties and are unable to offer advice unless we have direct contact with the seed company seeking the authorisation or the Commission Decision has been published. This is a reflection of the frustration experienced when knowing that a particular GM variety is under development and that approval for growing/marketing in the EU is being sought, but without any idea of when it might come on stream. Applications disappear into the EU bureaucracy for months, leaving our sector of the industry unclear as to what preparations should be made for the handling of a new GM crop, with all the inherent customer concern that entails. If clearance procedures cannot be speeded up, arrangements should be made by the Commission to issue regular status reports on applications in the pipeline. FDF supports the procedure adopted by ACRE and UK attempts to simplify procedures at EU level in line with ACRE's practice and experience.

(c) Novel Foods and their labelling

  2.6 FDF believes that the use of genetic modification of food production can provide benefits throughout the food chain: to primary producers; food processors and consumers. As stated in our evidence to the previous Select Committee inquiry (ref. paragraph 1.2 above), we do not believe that genetic modification per se presents any food safety risk or that foods produced using GMOs represent a special class of new foods, and that we believe they should be subject to the same type of risk assessment as any other new food product and its intended use, rather than its method of development. Therefore, we supported the need for European legislation covering the introduction of any novel food, whether or not GM origin, as a means to achieving a harmonised approach to the risk assessment of all novel foods and ensuring consumer confidence and fair trade.

  2.7 Unfortunately, during its nine year gestation period, the eventual Regulation on novel foods and novel food ingredients (258/97) became increasingly subjected to political compromise, particularly with regard to labelling requirements, and the final text, whilst welcomed by industry as a necessary legal instrument in an increasingly difficult market situation, was in many respects unclear, incomprehensible and open to interpretation. It left many uncertainties, not least how to deal with those products of genetic modification already on the market, specifically Monsanto's RoundUp ReadyTM soya and Novartis's Bt maize.

  The labelling of foods containing derivatives of these raw materials was resolved only after lengthy debate, as recently as 26 May, and after industry voluntary labelling agreements had already been put in place in several EU Member States. This recently adopted Regulation, which supersedes Commission Regulation (EC) No 1813/97, is effectively an interpretation of "substantially equivalent" (Article 3.4 of Regulation 258/97) and will therefore have a significant impact on the application of 258/97 to future submissions for approval and as such is likely to act as a deterrent to potential applications, imposing more onerous procedures on foods or food ingredients which might hitherto have been regarded as "substantially equivalent" to the conventional product. This in turn will have implications for applications under 90/220.

  2.8 FDF has always maintained that, by any reasonable criteria, food crops genetically modified for agronomic benefit, i.e., herbicide tolerance or pesticide resistance, are equivalent to conventional crops, i.e., the final food product, as sold to the consumer, does not differ in safety, nutritional composition, functionality or taste. Equally, we have maintained that consumers should be informed about the use of this new technology in the food supply and to this end have been running a consumer information campaign, "foodfuture", since 1995. Labelling can never be a substitute for consumer education and it is debatable what message the indication on pack that a product contains genetically modified soya or maize will convey. FDF supported the labelling criteria established by Directive 258/97, in particular where genetic modification resulted in any change in composition, nutritional value or nutritional effects or intended use of the food which rendered a novel food or food ingredient no longer equivalent to an existing food or food ingredient. We anticipated that the criteria used to assess "equivalence" would be based on the OECD concept of substantial equivalence.[12] The Council Regulation concerning the compulsory indication of the labelling of certain foodstuffs produced from genetically modified organisms of particulars other than those provided for in Directive 79/112/EEC[13] has now established a legal precedent for an EU definition of "substantially equivalent" which is NOT based on internationally accepted criteria.

  2.9 Whilst we in no way wish to deprive consumers of information they consider to be relevant to their purchasing decision, indeed industry announced its intention to introduce voluntary labelling guidelines from January this year,[14] we are opposed to the introduction of legislation which preserves in aspic a concept which may have relevance for a short period only. Soya derivatives in particular are used in a wide range of products in very low amounts. The actual GM content in any product will be very small, given that the commodity crop is commingled. The first GM soya crop, harvested in the USA in autumn 1996, represented only about 2 per cent of the total harvest. Whilst the proportion of GM crop in the total harvest is steadily increasing, the GM ingredient still represents only a tiny fraction of the product as a whole. This cannot be conveyed to consumers by use of a pre-determined brief indication on a label, but will result in a large number of products being labelled. We believe this will detract from any future labelling of GM foods or ingredients where a real difference in the product is indicated, thereby causing consumer confusion. It will also introduce an additional burden on industry in terms of product testing and analysis. Moreover, the Regulation has been put in place without agreement on validated methods of analysis or thresholds for "adventitious contamination".

  2.10 Included in the general principles of labelling are that it must be accurate, truthful and meaningful. It must also be enforceable. We do not believe that the Regulation can be properly enforced throughout Europe until validated methods of analysis of both DNA and protein differences resulting from the presence of RoundUp ReadyTM soya of Bt maize have been established. We have always been opposed to "negative" labelling, i.e., "free from genetically modified. . .", but some retailers and manufacturers are sourcing soya from assured non-GM supplies for certain lines. Whilst every care is taken, to ensure that no GM material is present by means of audit trails throughout planting, harvesting and transportation, the possibility of detecting modified DNA cannot be entirely dismissed for example because of the possibility of wind or insect pollination from a GM crop grown elsewhere. The Regulation takes account of this, but agreement on thresholds for such "adventitious contamination" has not yet been reached.


  3.1 Both industry and consumers are currently in a transition period with regard to the introduction of foods and ingredients produced by GM. It is our belief that the technology offers potentially enormous benefits throughout the food chain, but that consumers are unlikely to accept the technology unless it offers direct benefit to them. The difference in consumer reaction to the introduction in 1995 of GM tomato purée contrasted with the 1996 reaction to the importation and use of the first GM soya is indicative of this, though may also reflect the plummeting in consumer confidence in the food supply following the March 1996 BSE crisis. We find it regrettable that the complexities of international commodity trading have imposed a product on the British (and European) public before it was ready, creating enormous difficulties in the food supply chain as a result, but we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world and the realities of global trading. The more EU legislation diverges from that of the USA, Canada and South America, the greater will be the difficulties in sourcing raw materials acceptable in the EU market. This is likely to place an added financial burden on industry, and consequently consumers, without achieving any tangible benefit. The introduction of GM soya has demonstrated that we are unlikely to be able to achieve any significant influence on American growers. Restrictive EU legislation will serve only to disadvantage our own.


  4.1 On the assumption that this question refers to the safety of GMOs, we are confident that existing regulations in North America and the EU ensure safety both at research level and in application. We are unfamiliar with regulation in the Far East, particularly China, where we understand that the use of GM in the food supply is developing fast. We believe that global trading situations make it imperative that the same risk-based approach to the use of GM in the food supply be adopted internationally. This might best be done via the UN's Codex Alimentarius, through lengthy bureaucracy may well frustrate rapid agreement.


  5.1 Provided legislation is equitably enforced, European legislation should establish a level playing field throughout Europe. Our competitiveness is more likely to be threatened in international markets if over burdensome legislation increases the comparative cost of European production. There is a risk that R&D, and indeed food production, will be moved out of Europe if over-regulation resulting from reaction to short-term political pressures increases costs and impedes development without enhancing consumer or environmental protection.

4 June 1998

12   A paper has recently been published (Hilbeck, A et al (1998) Environmental Entomology 27: 480-487) that indicates that non-target species of insect can be harmed by ingesting the toxin in the Novartis maize. These sorts of risk had been identified long ago and the research needs could have been identified in advance. If Novartis had addressed these issues in more detail, the controversy may have been avoided. Back

13   The Commission are developing a monitoring plan to investigate whether insects are developing resistance to the Bacillus thuringensis toxin in the maize. The monitoring will be carried on the maize used commercially but it is possible that the same data could have been collected on an experimental scale rather than allowing a large scale experiment to take place in the environment. Back

14   Rissler, J & Mellon, M (1996) Perils amidst the promise. Union of Concerned Scientists: Washington DC. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999