Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Letter from J Sainsbury plc

  1. Thank you for inviting J Sainsbury plc to submit evidence as part of the above inquiry. Our largest subsidiary, Sainsbury's Supermarkets, offers over 23,000 products, 40 per cent of which are own brand. Sainsbury's brand products are sourced against our own specifications. Their quality, composition and safety is managed by Sainsbury's 200-strong Technical Division.

  2. Sainsbury's position on genetically modified foodstruffs is that set out in the Institute of Grocery Distribution guidelines in March 1997 (Appendix) [not printed]. The IGD Biotechnology Advisory Working Group worked over a period of four years to formulate these guidelines. Sainsbury's Technical Division Departmental Director, Geoff Spriegel, was an active member of it. The IGD guidelines have the support of representatives of just about every link and interested sector of the UK food chain.

  3. Sainsbury's policy is that genetically modified foods should be labelled so that customers can make an informed choice about the products they are buying. Adequate labelling is vital to ensure that customers are able to choose whether or not to buy a genetically modified product. In addition to labelling, we also provide customer information leaflets. These are regularly updated and a copy of the latest version is enclosed [see Appendix].

  4. In February 1996, Sainsbury's introduced a genetically modified tomato puree. It was clearly labelled "made with genetically modified tomatoes" on the front of the can. Its launch was supported by customer leaflets displayed in store and the company gave a full pre-briefing to the media. The product was introduced with minimum fuss and with maximum consumer acceptance.

  5. Sainsbury's are able to clearly label the genetically modified tomato puree only because we worked in partnership with the grower and planned for segregation and appropriate labelling. This is the exact opposite to the way in which the genetically modified commodity crops are being introduced to the market and why consumer acceptance of these products is markedly lower.

  6. We tried, but unsuccessfully, to persuade Monsanto and the American Soya Bean Association of the need to segregate genetically modified soya from the standard crop for reasons of consumer choice. Subsequently we have worked to source identity preserved soya and soya-protein derivatives for our own brand products. As a result and for the immediate future, we are able to offer fewer products containing genetically modified soya than many other food retailers. We estimate that genetically modified soya is currently used in as few as 30 to 40 of our own brand products. We will continue to source identity preserved soya for as long as supplies remain available.

  7. Sainsbury's has confidence in the safety of genetically modified products which have been fully approved for food use in the UK. However, with regard to the regulatory process itself, we have the following comments:

Public Profile of the Approval Bodies

  8. It is very clear from the customer letters Sainsbury's receives that the majority of those members of the public who have concerns about genetic modification are unaware of the process through which genetically modified foods have to pass before being approved as safe for sale on the market. They are often unaware of the existence of the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (ACRE) and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) let alone their remit and the effort that is put in to the whole approval process.

  9. Even when customers are aware of the approval process, very few seem to know that the minutes of proceedings of ACRE and ACNFP are published and openly available. This apparent lack of transparency and openness creates an impression of having something to hide or, worse still, a belief that the process is uncontrolled.

  10. We believe the approval bodies should adopt a higher profile with the aim of helping the general public to take a more informed view of genetic modification. For example we would suggest improving the accessibility of the language style used in minutes and other public documents so that whether or not the readers have technical knowledge, they can comprehend the information published. Another improvement would be the inclusion of details of those foodstuff rejected by the Committee and the reasons why.

Co-ordination between the various approval bodies

  11. Each approval body has a specific remit to address approval from a different perspective e.g., food safety, or environmental safety. There appears to be no over arching body responsible for taking a more strategic overview of the foodstuffs being approved and the broader impact their approval might have from an agricultural, environmental and consumer perspective. We believe that the work of the approval bodies should be better co-ordinated to ensure that any gaps that may exist in their responsibilities are identified and addressed.

Public information

  12. Approval bodies should be empowered either to require those choosing to bring the technology to market to provide appropriate consumer information about the technology or to run an effective public information campaign. Currently retailers, who have no involvement in the development of the technology nor in the approval of specific products, seek to fill in some of the information gaps for their customers in an attempt to help them to make an informed choice about the products they are buying. All parties have a responsibility to inform consumers and retailers alone should not be looked at to meet this obligation.

Post-Implementation monitoring

  13. The EU and UK Government are already looking at introducing regulatory requirements for the monitoring of approved products once introduced to market. We support this approach. In advance of mandatory requirements, approval bodies could play a part in encouraging voluntary measures to be adopted by producers.

  14. I hope these comments are helpful. Please let me know if the Committee requires any further information.

Jane Sell

Public Affairs Manager

15 June 1998

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