Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 223 - 239)




  223.  Good morning, Dr Robertson and Mr Combes. Thank you very much indeed for coming to give evidence to our Committee on the subject of genetic modification in agriculture. I do not think there is any need for you to introduce your organisation, what we do not know about from our personal experience we have had the opportunity to read in the paper which you have kindly sent us. Perhaps you could just introduce yourselves individually and say what your responsibilities are.
  (Dr Robertson)  Good morning, Chairman. My name is Dr Alastair Robertson. I am the Director for Technical Operations for Safeway Stores. I will be your primary respondent this morning.
  (Mr Combes)  I am Tony Combes. I look after public affairs for Safeway's relationships with Government and also special interest groups like farmers.

  224.  We have taken evidence from Zeneca and we heard in that session about the tomato puree which you sell and they make. Could you say a bit more? Are there many other genetically modified products which you sell apart from that, perhaps you could say something about that? As far as the tomato puree itself is going, how is that comparing in its sales against the other brand?
  (Dr Robertson)  Genetically modified tomato puree is the only wholly genetically modified product that is currently in the market place. We launched that in 1996, February. We have other products in the market place now following the launch of GM soya which will contain soya and which are labelled to contain soya. As far as I am aware we and Sainsbury's have the only genetically whole product in the market place.

  225.  Are they rapidly increasing in number the products containing genetically modified soya which you label in that way?
  (Dr Robertson)  With the introduction of genetically modified soya then there will be a rapid increase in the number of GM products present in the market place. That will only be as an ingredient. As far as tomato puree is concerned, following the launch of that, we did that with full information on the pack advising customers that it was a genetically modified product. We had point of sale information which was very clear about the source of tomato puree. We had a help and advice leaflet and a help line that people could contact us on to talk about the product and understand it fully. We tried to define the benefits of that to the customers and then we had obviously the opportunity to provide an alternative product which was made from conventional tomato puree on the shelf by the side of it. So the customer was very much in charge of what they were shopping for. During that time we have now sold—Tony will correct me if I am wrong—in excess of 600,000 cans of the product and in fact in some of our stores it out-sells the conventional product. We believe that provided customers have the whole information, total information and the choice then they will accept genetically modified products providing they have the benefits that they expect.

  226.  Are their sales fairly constant in comparison with each other or are they affected by some of the genetic scare stories?
  (Dr Robertson)  I think the answer to that is they have been climbing steadily since its introduction. We have seen no major issues in terms of volume sold during the so-called genetic issues which have arisen in the papers. In fact as a company we find we do not have many letters from our customers asking questions about, or criticising, the technology.

Lord Grantchester

  227.  Have you undertaken any research into consumers' attitudes generally?
  (Dr Robertson)  We undertook consumer research at the time of introducing the genetically modified tomato puree and subsequent to that we have done quite a lot of work with the Institute of Grocery Distribution undertaking consumer research as well. That was with respect to developing labelling guidelines that were produced through the Institute of Grocery Distribution.
  (Mr Combes)  Specifically on the puree, Zeneca did some research asking customers as they left stores what were their opinions of the tomato puree and the only complaint was that it was not available in a tube because this was in a tin. The benefit is it is 29 pence for 170 grammes which makes it 20 per cent cheaper which reflects the benefit that comes from growing genetically modified tomatoes, i.e. you do not have the 40 per cent wastage which you can get with conventional tomatoes when they are grown. So the consumer research came back that the customers were quite happy providing they were given a choice.


  228.  That difference in price represents a real difference in cost to you, does it?
  (Mr Combes)  It is the saving that comes because the GM tomatoes are not wasted in the same way when the harvest is gathered in. You gather in conventional tomatoes, you put them in trucks to take from the fields to the factory and the tomatoes at the bottom of the truck get squashed by the ones at the top. That does not happen when the ripening process is carried on normally but the softening process has been delayed by a few days which is what happens.

Lord Jopling

  229.  But you tell us in your paper in paragraph two that you are charging for genetically modified tomato puree the same price. Does that mean you are profiteering out of it?
  (Mr Combes)  No, it is the same price but it is 170 grammes whereas the conventional tomato puree in tins is 142 grammes.

  230.  I see.
  (Mr Combes)  So the customer recognises the saving and also some customers say that it tastes better but that is not a claim we have made.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  231.  On this consumer issue, and public concern, obviously you have the places in your shops where people can go and complain about things and from what you are saying then how do any comments about these products compare with comments you have had on other products? Do you ever get any complaints about products, the consumer says: "This is not right. I do not want it. Take it out of your shop or I will not come here again" or that sort of thing? Does that happen with this product or does it not happen?
  (Dr Robertson)  I would like to say that we do not get complaints at all in our stores but clearly we do.

  232.  We have sat round this table and everybody gets complaints, we do so I am sure you do.
  (Dr Robertson)  We get complaints on a whole number of issues associated with our products, right the way down from quality to perceived safety issues. In terms of genetically modified puree we have had no more comments in terms of the safety of the product and certainly no comments regarding the quality.

Lord Rathcavan

  233.  Can I clarify one point, the cost to you of the GM tomato puree, is that 20 per cent less? You are selling it 20 per cent less, there is 20 per cent saving to the person who buys it but does it cost you a great deal less? Does the saving come through in your purchase price?
  (Dr Robertson)  Absolutely.

  234.  At the same level?
  (Dr Robertson)  Absolutely. I think the margins on the two products are virtually identical. It is a question one of my trading colleagues would be able to answer specifically but my understanding is that is the case.

Lord Redesdale

  235.  You were talking about experience so far with genetically modified tomatoes but there seems to be a growing movement and an awareness by consumers. Do you think that one of the reasons you have not had many complaints so far is that not many consumers realise that this is a genetically modified product in your tomato puree? I have a can here and it is not very clear labelling that it is a GM product. Do you think that with the consumer's concern growing you are going to get a lot more letters in the future and how will you deal with that?
  (Dr Robertson)  I do not believe we will regarding the tomato puree that you have just identified. I should say that, in addition to the on-pack information you see there, we have at this time very large point of sale information which states the product is a genetically modified product and consumer leaflets as well. There is no mistaking that it is a genetically modified product. In fact, we had quite a lot of PR and media coverage at the same time as we launched it making sure that we were very upfront and clear to the consumer that these products were genetically modified. I have also taken part, with Tony in fact, in Scotland in one of our stores which outsells the conventional product of tomato puree, we have done some demonstrations of the product being used on pizzas and so on. We have shown the product, we have had them (consumers) taste the product on pizzas and we have asked the question are they concerned by the fact that the product is genetically modified? I think 90 per cent of the comments came back as being "it tastes better, therefore I am happy with it".

Lord Grantchester

  236.  What are the responsibilities of yourselves and retailers in relation to the responsibilities of companies developing genetically modified crops? Do you feel that these companies are discharging them? Have they been in close enough dialogue with yourselves as retailers and ready to work with retailers in your opinion?
  (Dr Robertson)  It is an important question and I think the answer to that is we have three rules in our business about selling products: firstly, they must be beneficial to our customer; we must provide the information and we must provide a choice. We did all those three things with Zeneca when we launched the genetically modified tomato puree. The same cannot be said when genetically modified soya entered the market place. It seems to me that companies who are producing genetically modified products need to realise that they are part of a food chain and they are not just ancillary to it. They need to understand that there are consumer issues at stake here and they need to understand what those are rather than considering that they only have one customer which may be, in their case, the primary producer or the farmer. We would say that companies that are now involved with genetically modified products must work quite closely with us. I think we are probably as close to the customer in the market place as anybody can be in the food chain. If we are going to be bringing these things to the market place we need to be able to do so at a rate which is acceptable to the consumer and their understanding. I think that all of us have a job to play in making sure that education and understanding is in place as we bring these products to bear. The problem we had with soya was one of two years ago, having one product on the shelf which actually was a genetically modified product or contained genetically modified ingredients, to currently the possibility of soya entering the food chain and being an ingredient of 60 per cent of the processed products that we sell. That is a huge change in volume and acceptance by consumers who do not fully understand the technology. In fact, you could argue that many scientists do not understand the technology either unless they are directly involved with it. What we want to do as retailers is work with those companies to bring products into the market place which satisfy the conditions that we lay down. In other words they must be of benefit; we must provide the information in order to provide the choice. We do not want to be seen here as being an advocate of genetically modified foods, we are not. We are an advocate of bringing quality foods to the market place and if genetic modification can help that process then we will bring it to the market place with full information allowing our consumers to make their own choices as to whether they accept or reject the product or the technology.

  237.  Are you working closer with the companies developing crops, for example that the objective of the genetic modification should be portrayed and described at the retail end as well, ie what the crop is being modified for should also appear and be expressed to the consumer?
  (Dr Robertson)  Yes. One has to understand who the recipient of the technology is going to be ultimately. In the case of the biotechnology companies they only actually see the user, who might be the farmer, as being the recipient of the technology, failing to understand that if the consumer does not want to accept that technology then there will be problems with the technology long-term in its acceptability.

Lord Jopling

  238.  Are you aware of the work which has been reported in the press as having been carried out in Switzerland with regard to the effect on lacewing insects of introducing genetically modified maize which deters the ravages of corn?
  (Dr Robertson)  I am aware of the issue, yes.

  239.  Are you then not concerned that there is a whole host of similar indirect effects which could come out in a much more dramatic way than maybe the effect on lacewing insects where some unforeseen situation could emerge which could give rise to very serious public concern? Do you insure yourselves against those sorts of risks? How bothered are you about them?
  (Dr Robertson)  I think as a retailer we do not have the specific scientific knowledge to fully understand or work through the risks. We look to the expert advisory bodies to do that on our behalf and the regulatory process to operate on our behalf. We believe in the regulatory process as it stands. We accept that there are experts there who can assess the risks of a new technology but maybe we have an issue with the technology being so new that we cannot anticipate everything that will happen going forward. We do believe strongly that we should have post release analysis undertaken both in the environmental area and there is some discussion at the moment about doing it in the public health area as well. We would support post release analysis in all of those areas to evolve the technology so that we recognise the issues as they arise and put them right as they arise. We have to accept that we are in a position here where we are dealing with science and technology which has enormous power and enormous benefit but there can potentially be some disadvantages and we have to understand those too.

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