Examination of Witness (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 17 JUNE 1998
ROBERTSON and MR
240. Do you insure yourselves against these
sorts of risks?
(Dr Robertson) I do not see how we can totally
insure ourselves against the risk, except to believe in the regulatory
process that we have and to endorse that and participate in it
wherever we can. We are involved currently in the sub-committee
of the ACNFP in its evaluation of public health issues associated
with long term exposure to genetically modified products. I think
that is a right and proper thing to do. It is right and proper
that in anything that we do in technology and science and, indeed,
in conventional food production we should assess the risk going
forward and continually evolve our processes.
Lord Willoughby de Broke
241. There are two advisory committees,
ACRE and ACNFP, that deal with safety matters. How should the
broader issues be addressed in your opinion?
(Dr Robertson) I think that I have confidence,
as I have already said, in the way that those two committees approach
their work. Their work, as you rightly say, is about safety and
environmental impact respectively in the two committees. I think
they should continue to do that work. I think however there are
other issues surrounding a brand new technology, which has an
awful lot of potential power, that need to be addressed; consumer
issues that should be looked at. At the end of the day, this technology,
if it is to be of benefit in the future, needs to have the total
acceptance of the consumer. We cannot expect, I think, to put
technologies into the market place which few people understand
without addressing those concerns as part of that process. I think
we all have a job to do within that. The Government might think
about setting up another kind of group to address, specifically,
consumer confidence issues.
242. You welcome more consumer representation
either on these committees or separate committees?
(Dr Robertson) Absolutely, yes.
243. Can I turn to paragraph eight in your
paper in which you draw attention to the way in which European
regulatory processes are lagging behind that of the United States.
You refer, and I quote, to "... the potential to cause problems
for EU importers and US exporters." You do not enlarge upon
that and I think it would be interesting if you would be kind
enough to do so?
(Dr Robertson) I think probably the word `lagging'
was an inappropriate word. I think we have a slower process
in Europe, or I perceive we have a slower process in Europe, than
there is in the United States. In the United States you have got
basically the FDA and the USDA who are looking at the regulatory
process, probably more from a scientific and objective perspective
than I believe we have in Europe. In Europe we have to satisfy
all the Member States and that process actually takes a lot longer
than the process within the United States. It seems in the United
States people are prepared to accept the judgment of the USDA
and the FDA between them, and that then goes right across the
whole of the United States. In Europe we have got a different
situation where we have the different Member States. We have,
probably, a more political system and we are not just looking
at the regulatory process from the perspective of objective science.
We have vested interest within the various Member States coming
to bear as well. That is very slow. What we have seen with genetically
modified soya was that the regulatory process was rapid in the
United States, and it was allowed to enter the market place. In
Europe we had not yet addressed the issue and suddenly we found
we had a conflict between a product which was mixed, unsegregated,
allowed to come into Europe and held at the ports whilst people
were trying to understand the regulatory process which had not
yet addressed all of the issues. That was really the issue behind
244. Dr Robertson, in your written evidence
paragraph 10 you write of "Recent indecision and protracted
debate over regulation is likely to have a lasting adverse impact
on the future acceptance and market uptake of genetically modified
crops." I wonder if you would like to expand on this?
(Dr Robertson) I think that just builds on my
previous answer. In Europe we were waiting for the Novel Foods
Regulation to come into being but knowing fully we had to deal
with the introduction of genetically modified tomato puree on
the shelf; knowing fully that we would have products following
very closely behind and yet we had not addressed the issues in
the Novel Foods Regulation. When the Novel Foods Regulation was
enacted we still had not addressed the issues of how to label.
Within this country we produced, through the IGD, the labelling
guidelines for the industry. In fact it is interesting to note
that only on May 31 (this year), I think, the labelling provision
of the Novel Food Regulation was published and in fact it mirrors
the principles of that which we wrote three years ago as an industry
and we have worked to ever since. In fact, from January this year
we started to label our products because we could not wait any
longer. Public opinion was building to such a point that we had
to do something and in the absence of any guidance from Europe
we chose to implement those guidelines that we had laid down three
years ago. Fortunately, the European guidelines, now that they
have been published, mirror those exactly otherwise we might have
found ourselves in a position where we might have had to change
labels once again.
245. On acceptance and market uptake you
told us earlier that there has been, good acceptance of the tomato
puree in your view. Have you got plans for another pure genetically
modified product like tomato puree? For example, as I understand
it the Bt maize has been approved, will you be deliberating marketing
a GM cornflake, for example, in the future or do you again get
to test public acceptance?
(Dr Robertson) I think the answer to that is no
at this moment in time. Firstly, I think the Bt maize is not of
the same variety as one would use in cornflakes; it is not available
to us to produce that. If we did, we would look at it from the
perspective again of the quality of the product, of the advantages
that we could deliver to the consumer. At this stage I think what
we are interested in doing is making sure that we have got the
commodity products managed into the market place, customer acceptance
of those, and then we will look forward and see what is available
to us. At this moment in time most of the energy of the biotechnology
companies is in looking at the commodity products because that
is where the volume is and that is where the return on their investment
is. The return on the investment on products such as tomato puree
is remarkably low.
Lord Wade of Chorlton
246. In your paper you strongly support
the concept of some post release monitoring. I would be interested
to know how you would monitor it and by whom and what you would
(Dr Robertson) As I said earlier when I was discussing
post market release, I believe that it is important that the data
one collects can be acted upon. I think in the area of environmental
release the data one can collect is fairly robust, one can see
what is going on in a relatively short period of time and one
can develop the technology with respect to the information that
one gains, the knowledge that one gains. I think what is already
happening on environmental impact monitoring is a very good start.
There is now a move to look at public health through the consumption
of such products and that is much more tricky because I think
long term public health is a multi-factorial issue. It is going
to be very difficult to relate the data that one can collect of
people consuming genetically modified products to long term public
health several years down the road. I am cautious of that approach
because I think if the data is not robust, if the statistical
relationships are poor, then one could end up with creating scares
where really there are not any scares. It is other factors creating
247. May I ask who do you think ought to
pay for such a monitoring service? Is it something for the food
industry or the retailers or the consumers or is it the Government's
(Dr Robertson) It may be a bit of everybody's
actually, except I would say the retailers. I think the issue
is that in terms of the process which you set up, Government has
a responsibility because Government allows these products I believe
into the market place. It is their decision, we do not create
that decision, we have to work with the material that we are given
in the market place. It (post-harvest monitoring) is like every
other surveillance programme Government carries out, it is a public
health programme and an environmental health programme to ensure
that both health and the environment are looked after. We have
a responsibility I think in taking the long-term advantages out
of genetically modified products, biotechnology as a technology,
but making sure that we do not create any unanticipated issues
in the near future.
248. It was not Government who said you
had to stop this product, this was a decision that you made because,
on the one hand, you said that business industry created the opportunity
and science but, on the other hand, independent people had convinced
you it was safe and the consumer wanted it.
(Dr Robertson) I think there is a very significant
difference between the product that we put into the market place
and the current products, which are commodity products. We worked
very closely with Zeneca to introduce that (tomato puree) into
the market place but we did so in such a way that we had limited
market trials, limited growth areas, segregated products and we
knew that if there was any issue there, then we were in a position
to be able to trace it, take it back, recall it, take it out of
the system. We made the decision to launch that product on the
basis of those requirements. Zeneca clearly worked with us to
achieve that. We have a significant difference now where we are
putting in commodity products and mixing them with the conventional
products. We are talking about large volumes getting into products;
we cannot trace where they are and where they come from. I think
the biotechnology companies have the responsibility to make sure
that processes similarly robust and tight are in place.
249. Would it be fair to ask you what you
think of Iceland's view on these matters?
(Dr Robertson) This is a Public Affairs matter.
(Mr Combes) Iceland has said publicly that they
have no problems with the technology, they do not like the way
it is introduced, talking about commodity crops. We would agree
with them 100 per cent on that. Therefore, you wonder why they
have taken full page advertisements in the national press questioning
the safety of the product. I have said it in public, their Chairman
is a member of Greenpeace and they have 1.6 per cent market share
and they have 200 products which are affected by the soya. Therefore
it is relatively easy for them to say "Right we are not going
to have any GM soya in any of our own label products". They
have said also it is unsustainable, I think that is the important
part of that announcement, therefore there is an element of marketing
250. Do you think segregation is desirable
and practical for all crops? What is the Government role? How
are you getting on with your talks with the US agriculture agribusiness
to encourage them to take the importance of segregation seriously?
(Dr Robertson) I do think that segregation is
important, at least in the early stages of release into the market
place. As I said earlier, when I was referring to the tomato puree,
that is exactly what we did with that, we had limited growing
areas within the United States and the whole process was segregated
and traceable right back from the product to the field. I think
one of the problems that we have had with soya is that we have
been unable to manage the product into the market place. We are
not concerned about its safety, as I said earlier we believe in
the regulatory process to deal with those issues, but we are concerned
about being roller-coasted into having to introduce genetically
modified products which we cannot trace back through our processes
from field to fork. Over 50 per cent of our products now are own-
brand and we spend a lot of our time as retailers with our technical
teams, ensuring that we have got traceability of raw ingredients
right the way through the process. We find in these situations
(with GM commodity products) we cannot manage that, and the reason
we cannot manage that is because we have not got segregated processes.
It is important when we are releasing products into the market
place that we should do so, at least for a short period of time,
maybe one to two years, in a segregated environment.
251. Can I come in with an auxiliary question
on paragraph three where you state Safeway's position on genetic
modification saying you are happy to sell food containing genetically
modified ingredients provided it has gone through the regulatory
(Dr Robertson) Yes.
252. Can I draw your attention to the last
sentence in which you say: "In this respect Safeway is absolutely
clear, and can state that it has no plans to sell genetically
modified foods containing genes of animal or human origin."
Can I ask you why it has no plans to sell and do you mean you
are against it? Are you distinguishing genetically modified animals
as distinct from genetically modified plants or are you saying
that the transfer of genes from animals to plants is something
that you might be against?
(Dr Robertson) Our position on it is that there
really is no market place; we anticipate that there is no market
place at this stage. We are discussing around this table the current
issues that have resulted from genetically modified plant materials
with plant genes. I think that at this stage in the game to introduce
anything which has an animal gene associated with it would be
unacceptable to our customers. However, that is not to say that
situation will continue forever.
Chairman] Before we
go down that line any further can we complete the subject of segregation
which we were previously discussing.
253. Do you think it is practical to have
(Dr Robertson) I think it is practical, yes. I
think it is practical as a third part of introducing a product
into the market place. The first part of it is obviously the R&D
trials and the information that needs to be generated to provide
the ACNFP with sufficient information to make risk judgments.
I think the second part of it should be a limited trial which
allows it to go into the market place over a short period of time.
Segregation over that period of time should be part of the regulations.
I think the question I was asked earlier was "what role does
Government play in it?" I think we are dealing here with
a worldwide technology and I think we have to have worldwide regulation
on this technology. It is not just about having a regulation in
the United Kingdom or even within Europe when, in fact, world
trade allows a different set of regulations and rules to bring
these products into the market place. I think we should have segregation,
it should be part of the regulatory process for introducing the
product into the market place and it should be worldwide.
Chairman] Can we proceed
to the question of labelling. Lord Moran, you have a question.
254. Dr Robertson, you covered the question
of labelling in very full and helpful detail in paragraph seven
of your paper. We have seen Appendix 3, the draft advice to customers,
which is very helpful. I suppose what you say means that you do
think it is practicable for labelling to indicate whether GM processes
have been used. I wonder if you could tell us what you think of
the recent labelling agreement in Brussels and whether you think
that is satisfactory and goes far enough or not? I wonder whether
you could tell us anything about the relevance of thresholds and
(Dr Robertson) Can I just pick up an issue on
the question? We are in favour of labelling where genetically
modified ingredients have been used but your question raised genetically
modified processes and I think there is a substantial difference
between those two things. We can label where ingredients are present
and we would do that and agree with that.
255. Including the soya ones?
(Dr Robertson) Yes, including the soya ones. Where
a GM process might be used, in other words where an enzyme is
used as a processing aid, I think if we were to start moving into
that area we would label every product that is available in the
market place as genetically modified or having a genetically modified
process. That would defeat the object of informative labelling,
people would not wish to eat anything. Can you remind me of the
last part of your question?
256. Brussels is the next one, the agreement,
whether you think the agreement is satisfactory?
(Dr Robertson) The agreement has been long in
coming so that was my original point. Now it is here I am satisfied
with the labelling provisions in that I believe they quite closely
mirror what we have laid down already (IGD voluntary guidelines)
and that is to the benefit of the consumer, not to our benefit
I should hasten to add. There are two issues then I think you
raised, what should not be labelled and to what thresholds will
people accept genetically modified or free from genetically modified
materials? I think that is very important because of the sensitivity
of the analytical methodology to have some threshold cut-off that
is acceptable both to consumers and industry. It needs to be low
enough to be acceptable to consumers but high enough to be practicable
to the industry to manage. We have to accept that there are going
to be cross pollination issues which will create contamination.
When we are getting into derivatives of soya, such as the oils
and so on, or soya protein isolates, we are talking about cross
contamination of the processes the beans are going through which
will be legitimate. We have to set a level that is low enough
to be acceptable to the consumer and high enough to be practical
to the industry but not to endorse adulteration.
257. Are you confident that the Commission
will judge it correctly?
(Dr Robertson) The Commission are currently looking
at that. Clearly we would like to have an input into those discussions,
and I believe we probably will have the opportunity, through MAFF,
Chairman] Lord Gallacher,
you were going to ask a question on animal genes but I think Lord
Grantchester has to some extent asked the question. I do not know
if you would like to add anything.
Lord Gallacher] I
think Dr Robertson has in answer to a supplementary dealt with
the question of foods containing genes of animal origin and in
the light of that I do not propose to ask it again.
258. Does that mean you would not use the
acid freeze gene taken from fish, for example, if that appeared
in any product?
(Dr Robertson) What we are dealing with here is
an evolving technology and we are also dealing with consumer perception
of that technology. Scientifically we are talking about a DNA
code which can have an impact within another species. That is
not necessarily turning a tomato into a fish, it is expressing
a particular chemical within it. If consumers accepted that technology
and accepted the cross species issues associated with gene transfer
then possibly in the future we may test the market place to see
whether that would sell. Again we would apply the same rules:
we would make sure that there was a benefit to the consumer, we
would give them clear information about what we were doing, we
would put the product on the shelf and we would have an alternative
product by its side. If the consumer then chose not to accept
that product then, like any other product we sell, it would come
off the shelf. The answer is we do not, at this moment in time,
deem it appropriate to put those sorts of products into the market
place. In the future we would not like to make a comment, we would
play it as the technology advances.
259. The answer is you might?
(Dr Robertson) Yes.
260. I had a question on industrial crops
which you made a reference to in your paper at paragraph four.
You said these could have benefits for the environment. Can you
expand on that a bit?
(Dr Robertson) The comment was really regarding
the fact that we produce quite a number of crops or we use crops
to produce things like modified starches, particular oils, for
particular purposes. That process requires the growing of crops,
it requires the processing, the isolation, the purification of
those materials and then the process of making modified starches
for example. If crops could be produced with that end purpose
in mind, so it was easier to extract, for instance, starch out
of potatoes or to undertake the modification process, then clearly
there would be benefits in terms of energy savings, just general
environmental savings. The intention of using genetic modification
for subsequent industrial processes is a potentially viable and
beneficial thing to do in terms of the impact on the environment.
261. Does that apply also to the genetically
modified food crops?
(Dr Robertson) Yes, it does, and in fact the benefits
we conveyed to our customers, as Tony said, were that there was
less wastage of the product, the product had a much higher dry
matter content so it required much less in the way of energy to
remove the water from it and basically the whole process was much
more efficient and effective. So we had environmental savings
in that way; less water used in the growing of the crop being
262. Dr Robertson, are you concerned that
in the future there could be a material level of imports from
third countries, such as China, without any means of telling whether
they are GM foods or not? What might be done about this or does
your field to fork policy override your own involvement? Really
the question is not just for yourselves but for the general market
place and the potential problem.
(Dr Robertson) I think there is a major concern
that if there is not some form of global regulation of the process
and global monitoring of the process one could have third countries,
particularly China is a good example, where the technology is
available to them but we have no way of understanding or managing
that process in terms of food products that may enter our market
place. This is a particular issue when it comes to commodity products.
China is not yet entering the world market place in terms of its
crop production but could do in the future and could provide really
severe problems for us. This brings me back to a comment I made
earlier that regulation is a global requirement, monitoring is
a global requirement, and I think that is an important role for
Government to play.
Chairman] On that
note can I thank you both, Dr Robertson and Mr Combes, very much
indeed for having come along today to help us. It has been very
useful and interesting evidence. Thank you.