Examination of Witness (Questions 223
WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE 1998
ROBERTSON and MR
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 soldTony will correct me if I am wrongin
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.