Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 240 - 262)



  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.

Lord Jopling

  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 that statement.

Lord Rathcavan

  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 monitor for?
  (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 those problems.

  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 responsibility?
  (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 in it.

Lord Gisborough

  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.

Lord Grantchester

  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 process, etc.
  (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.

Lord Gisborough

  253.  Do you think it is practical to have total segregation?
  (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.

Lord Moran

  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 tolerances?
  (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, to do.

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 another.

Lord Rathcavan

  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.

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