Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 57)

WEDNESDAY 13 MAY 1998

PROFESSOR DEREK BURKE and PROFESSOR JOHN BERINGER

  40.  I would have thought that that argument could be used for many other things. I do not see why only ostrich meat comes within that category.
  (Professor Burke)  I am told that supermarkets work on the amount of material moved per square metre of shelf. If something does not move it goes off the shelf very fast. They are running experiments all the time on supermarket shelves as to whether or not people buy certain products. I have a loyalty card and perhaps Members of the committee also have one. They tell us not only what we buy but what our socio-economic status is, where we live and so on. They have a huge amount of information as to how the market works.

Chairman

  41.  Under the novel food regulation MAFF is the authority which assesses the risk of modified foods and animal feeds. How are environmental concerns, if there are any, dealt with?
  (Professor Burke)  They would go to ACRE chaired by Professor Beringer. There is cross-membership. One member of ACNFP was also a member of ACRE, and there was also cross-membership of other committees. We would cross-refer it and not attempt to answer an environmental issue because of our lack of expertise. There are always civil servants who work with ACRE present at the meeting. That has never been a problem. That system of communication between a series of committees works well. What is sometimes lost is the big issue which does not fall into any one committee slot and is not part of any one remit. I think that that is something which the Food Agency will need to consider. Professor Beringer also referred to some of the bigger issues that did not fall within the remit of any one particular committee.

  42.  He referred to issues like fewer insects for birds, but that would not come under the Food Agency?
  (Professor Burke)  No.

  43.  Can you give an example of something that would come under the Food Agency?
  (Professor Burke)  Animal feed did at one time. Looking back over the period since the introduction of genetically modified soya, we were asked whether it was safe. We were confident that it was as safe as any product was likely to be. But we were not asked about the implications for the food chain of introducing a genetically modified material as a commodity foodstuff. I am not sure whose responsibility that is. That is an illustration of "the bigger issues", ie the effects downstream in the market of approving something that may have implications for farmers, grocers and so on.

Lord Moran

  44.  There have been a good many suggestions that in the interests of the consumer products should be labelled to show where a genetically modified organism has been used. If there is to be labelling how should it be done? Should all products derived from GMOs be labelled as GM even where the gene and gene product are absent from the product, for example as in oils? Should the label indicate if the gene product is present but the gene probably is not, especially if the gene product is allergenic, for example with genes of nut origin, or if the processed product contains a small quantity of the GMO, for example a pizza which contains a small amount of soya bean oil or flour derived from GM soya?
  (Professor Burke)  The labelling issue picks up the two points that I tried to distinguish earlier. Food safety has no implications for labelling. There is no question of an unsafe food going through to the market. You do not label something as unsafe. You label because the consumer has asked for information about the amount of materials or their origin. At one time I thought that that such information was not needed, but I am persuaded that if the consumer wants information we should provide it. The difficulty is how it should be provided. How much labelling should there be, and what form should it take? What is both practical and informative? There is a trade-off between the two aims. One can take your particular example of the oil derived from rape where there is no gene product and no DNA present and the oil is substantially the same as normal oil. One can take another example which is a real possibility. If sugarbeet is modified to make it disease resistant should the sucrose derived from that sugarbeet be regarded as different form normal sucrose? Sucrose is a straightforward chemical molecule. It is crystallisable and has a defined chemical composition. In my view, one should not label that product as being different from normal because it is not different. There is no test that you can devise to demonstrate from where it has come. A label that cannot be tested in some way is of no use. In my view, if the product is indistinguishable from the conventional product then labelling is unnecessary, but if there is any difference at all - and here I am talking about the gene product not the gene, which is exactly what has happened in soya where there is a small amount of new protein but no DNA present in a non-biologically active form - then there should be a label. I used to think that labelling was not necessary but I have changed my mind. If the consumer wants to know he should know. The difficulty arises over the practicalities. As you know, soya is moved round in hundreds of thousands of tonnes. The tests for the presence of genetic modification are difficult and have a low level of sensitivity. There has been a good deal of confusion as to what should be done about such commodity crops. Last week I went to Tesco and when I got home I found that the label on a pizza contained a little asterisk at the bottom saying that the soya had been genetically modified. Because the EU has not yet reached agreement, Britain has moved ahead and provided labelling for soya. Soya is present in 60 per cent of products in supermarkets. I have some concerns about a label which appears on 60 per cent of products in supermarkets when there is no alternative, except if I go to Iceland. Who knows how long they can offer that alternative?

  45.  Clearly, it is very difficult to provide the sort of label that can be readily understood by the consumer and is more or less accurate?
  (Professor Burke)  Yes. This is a sophisticated science which is quite hard to explain. The science carries social overtones. The consumer has lost some confidence in the regulators, particularly in the light of BSE. The consumer does not know how seriously to take the case put forward by Greenpeace and the Natural Law Party. The consumer finds it hard to weigh the level of risk. We cannot put a number on it. But the consumer has the right to choose. We find it very difficult to supply the information that the consumer needs in a way that he can make use of it and so make sensible choices. But people do make choices. In the week following the BSE issue I stood beside a deep freeze in a supermarket. People were saying, "It's half-price and the risk is very low. I'm buying it." We make risk-benefit decisions all the time.

Lord Redesdale

  46.  You said that it was very difficult to carry out tests on genetically altered material. How do we ensure that imported products have been assessed and labelled correctly?
  (Professor Burke)  I think that this will be very difficult. There is a test for the gene which is sophisticated, expensive and involves the use of radioactive material and similar sophisticated biochemicals. It must have a lower limit of sensitivity. I do not believe that we can be sure. For that reason the EU Commissioners proposed a label which said "This may contain genetically modified material". That pleased no one. The manufacturers were placed in an impossible position. They had a label that they could not defend. Greenpeace did not like it because it believed that it was being fobbed off. What is the consumer to make of a label which says that certain products may contain such material? Particularly in the case of commodity crops I think that manufacturers to be sure that they are not misleading their customers will label all their soya products. The choice will arise either by a particular supermarket offering an alternative or, as in organic produce, by market segmentation within a supermarket chain. We are running a rather interesting social experiment to see how deep the concerns are. My general experience is that the British consumer is very pragmatic. He or she is cautious particularly after BSE but is not a hypochondriac.

Lord Grantchester

  47.  This has virtually been answered. How would you label?
  (Professor Burke)  I think that we must label. We as regulators must not be seen to have things to hide. If the public wants to know then it is reasonable to give them the information in an open democratic society. The difficulties arise in how that formulation works. The matter is subject to some difficulty. The EU was unable to reach a decision in part because of the very different social approaches of different members. Professor Beringer referred to the differences between the US and Britain. There are also big differences between Britain and Austria. The EU has had difficulty in reaching a consensus. Quite recently the British have put a proposal to the Commission, which I believe is very sensible. I understand that that is to be discussed by Ministers in the next few days. During its presidency the British are making strenuous efforts to reach an EU-wide approval system for labelling. Of course, it will be a compromise; there is no other way to proceed. We live in a society that is different from that in America where new technology is not treated with quite the same caution as here.

Lord Rathcavan

  48.  Do you advocate a symbol for genetically modified labelling? You gave one example. I wonder what that means to the general public.
  (Professor Burke)  You can always supply more information, for example leaflets at checkout counters and so on. There has even been talk about intelligent PCs which can be interrogated. But that is for a very small percentage of the population who want to take it that far. There was talk—I am unsure of its current status—of a stamp or kite mark.

Chairman

  49.  But that is an example of voluntary labelling?
  (Professor Burke)  Yes—because of the failure of the EU to come to a conclusion and because supermarkets and manufacturers were rightly concerned to be as open as they could.

  50.  Would you be in favour of a threshold below which there should not be labelling, or do you think that any detectable presence of GMOs should require labelling?
  (Professor Burke)  As in all these situations, if any foreign substance is present one must have a lower limit. That lower limit can be set either by a toxicological test—that below that level there is no danger—or, more likely in this case, below the limit of detection. I do not know the limits of detection, but they are real.

  51.  And it will vary over time?
  (Professor Burke)  Indeed. The tests will probably become more sensitive.

Lord Jopling

  52.  You spoke of the complication of carrying out tests to see whether a product is genetically modified. How many places are there in the country which can carry out such tests? How long do they take? What would be the rough cost to a food manufacturer?
  (Professor Burke)  You may have to ask the Clerk to obtain some of that information. Any molecular biology research laboratory would be able to carry out the tests. It was something that I could have done myself when I was a little more involved. But it involves the use of very expensive chemicals and takes some time—a day or two. No standard county surveillance system is able to do that at the moment. I understand that specialist companies are beginning to spring up to offer this as a service. It will run basically rather like DNA fingerprinting. It will be a specialist service offered at a cost.

Lord Gallacher

  53.  We have dealt with labelling. Now we come to segregation. As some people are in favour of segregation of GM and non-GM food, do you think that that should be considered as a possibility, with non-GM food being treated in a way similar to organic foods? If consumers are given that choice, how do you suggest it should be handled? Perhaps it is more a matter for Sainsbury's than yourself.
  (Professor Burke)  Segregation is easy when the supply lines are short, for example when the products come from a local nursery. Zeneca went to a great deal of trouble to offer a separate line of GM and non-GM tomato paste. It becomes very difficult when a product has come a long way, though it is possible. There is an economic cost. The segregation of rapeseed was costed in Canada for about a year. It resulted in a 10 per cent increase. But it was said that that could not be scaled up because it was not possible to track the railway trucks. Everything had to be moved by road and such a major crop as soya could not be moved by road. Therefore, one runs into logistical problems of that kind. I am sure that it is possible but it comes down to cost. North America is going GM very quickly. The estimate for this summer is 40 per cent. I think that it will go to 100 per cent because of the advantages to the producer. American farmers are very independent people who make a shrewd decision as to what will give them the best income. This will give them more money and they will do it. Segregation can really take place only on the basis of countries, for example by Brazil or Argentina shipping the material separately, but terrible problems arise when one comes to the processing industry. Sixty per cent of the products in supermarkets cannot be segregated. I suppose that in retrospect soya flour from non-GM sources could have been offered for a few years, but I do not believe that it was ever practical to offer this particular product with and without GM soya. The costs would have been beyond what people were prepared to pay.

Chairman

  54.  But that is what Iceland does, is it not?
  (Professor Burke)  Iceland does it for its own label products. It does it by accessing soya from two particular countries. That is fine; that is how the market works. It is a very interesting experiment. If there is such an advantage to the farmer as the North American experience suggests the price cannot remain the same. Iceland will therefore have to pay more to source that material and that will probably have to be passed on to the consumer. That is another very interesting experiment. How much more are people prepared to pay? I think that we should run these experiments. It is the only way in which we can find out.

Lord Jopling

  55.  I know that your former committee is not interested primarily in the environment. Is it conceivable that GM crops can have a net beneficial effect on the environment?
  (Professor Burke)  I had prior notice of this question and thought about it a bit. I offer two possibilities. The first is that if herbicide usage falls or simplifies—that is, people use better characterised herbicides—as long as we control what happens to hedgerows, the edges of lanes and so forth, then less herbicide is in general a good thing. Secondly, if yields rise we may begin to take out of farming less productive land, for example land at the edge of the sea coast. The sandlings of north Suffolk were ploughed up during the war. It is not very good soil. It would make a lot of sense to let it revert and devote a strip of land just in from the coast to insects and birds. Whether that will happen I do not know. One knows the pressures on farmers to optimise their income.

Chairman

  56.  Monsanto claim that huge quantities of insecticide do not now need to be used on GM crops in the United States which previously had to be used. Do you have any reason to doubt those claims?
  (Professor Burke)  No. I am just not expert to assess it. I think that it will be very interesting to watch it.

Lord Rathcavan

  57.  Do the delays apparently inherent in the EC regulatory system indicate an arbitrary and alarming inability to reach rational decisions within a sensible time frame or an admirable degree of caution and responsibility which contrasts favourably with regulatory practices in North America?
  (Professor Burke)  We are making very heavy weather of it. We are seriously in danger of losing competitive advantage in world agriculture. That is not a trivial problem. The agro-food world is now controlled by about five companies of whom only one is British. The WTO also has an impact on what we do. I hope that this committee will be able to help the tide that is necessary to get faster decisions out of the EU. A personal view is that the people who are making the decisions are not paying the costs of the delays in implementation. Whatever the decisions may be, delay costs money. Having said that, the US has de-restricted very substantially. I am a little more cautious than Professor Beringer about the risks involved. I think that we need to watch it. But if the Americans want to run the experiment let them run it. The US is moving very assertively in this field. It has taken a number of steps to free up the regulatory process not only in the areas of environmental safety and food safety but in the way it clears patents. Recently I heard that the Patent Office in the US was rewarded on the basis of the number of patents approved, not the number of patents scanned. That is a very positive move if one wishes to be a dominant trading force in the next century, as I think the US does. We must respond rather more rapidly than we have so far.

Chairman]  Thank you very much for your most expert and valuable evidence.


 
previous page contents

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

© Parliamentary copyright 1999