Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 560 - 565)

WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER 1998

MR IAIN FERGUSON, MR NEVILLE CRADDOCK and DR GERALDINE SCHOFIELD

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  560.  Are you happy—and I am talking now about the food industry—with the role of the bioscience companies in the production of GM foods, and what relationship does the food industry have with them, because their direct customer is generally the producer?
  (Dr Schofield)  Yes, we do have obviously through the scientific community, as well as through a business community, dealings with the people who supply us in terms of what research they are doing and what they are going to have to offer. I think there was a slight problem, particularly with the introduction of the products we have been talking about, with agronomic benefits, that there was a lack of understanding of how to market these initially, because a lot of these companies are not used to dealing directly with consumers and so on; they are used to dealing into commodities and they did not quite understand or fully appreciate or go through the whole of the food chain, as Mr Ferguson said earlier, in terms of understanding what the consumer wants, what the consumer needs and what the informations are. I think that was part of the problem with the marketing strategy. It obviously is changing and it is a different relationship with people who are looking at consumer benefits in the bioscience companies.

  561.  Does that suggest that perhaps the bioscience companies have not really appreciated the response of certain consumer groups to these genetically modified foods?
  (Mr Ferguson)  It is a fact to say that the American bioscience companies were surprised by the reaction in Europe. They were surprised because they did not have the same reaction in North America, where they had successfully introduced these products, and they believed that a similar strategy, which was essentially to build on the benefits to the growers and therefore create a stream of material, would also work in Europe. Clearly they have learned from that mistake and, indeed, are now quite active in a number of initiatives, some joint initiatives with the food industry, some initiatives within their own trade associations, in helping to make available information and contribute information to things such as the FDF Foodfuture campaign. Again it is an example of the fact, of course, that the majority of these companies are not United Kingdom companies; they are not even European companies, they are essentially global companies, often using the North American market, because, of course, it is the biggest agricultural market in the world, as their point of introduction.
  (
Dr Schofield)  We have been working with them through the European industry associations of which both ourselves and the bioscience companies are a part. It is a positive step.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  562.  What work are you involved in in creating a code of practice, is the EC or the United Kingdom Government involved, and why did the Institute of Grocery Distribution produce their code?
  (Mr Ferguson)  We are working as an industry. As I mentioned earlier, I believe, the IGD is the overarching body which brings together the retailers and the food manufacturers, and their particular work, which Dr Schofield is very much involved with, in putting together labelling guidelines, was really there to try and fill a vacuum. As we have already talked about, we needed desperately the legislation and the regulation to be in place. In the absence of that, in order to build consumer confidence we wanted to make sure that, as far as possible, everyone in industry was using the same basic guidelines, so that we could build on that as part of our communication.
  (Dr Schofield)  We realised, both retailers and manufacturers, about four years ago that these genetically modified commodity crops would be coming on to the market and research was done about how to provide information and labelling. There was a hope that we would have had the Novel Foods Regulation several years ago but in the absence of that it was decided to have a voluntary code, and we did some consumer research with some focus groups to decide what the consumer wanted. At that point there was quite an upswell that they wanted any novel protein labelled and that is why the Institute of Grocery Distribution came up with their code of practice. Part of it was a realisation of commodities and part of it was the Novel Foods Regulation.
  (Mr Craddock)  May I add, my Lord Chairman, we do, of course, work with our own government, as do other interested bodies, and they are looking at the moment to formulate guidelines which will hopefully clarify some of the uncertainties of the new regulatory framework.

Lord Rathcavan

  563.  Could I ask you about the lack of an international agreement and particularly the lack of agreement within the European Union on the handling of GM crops and the use of GM crops. Is this causing your members problems?
  (Mr Ferguson)  Yes. If we go back to the beginning almost, it is an internationally sourced industry. It would be very advantageous to have one unified set of rules, one unified set of regulations, which were applied universally, fairly and consistently. That would make our jobs very much easier.

Chairman

  564.  Are you concerned about the delays that are involved in the EC regulatory system?
  (Mr Ferguson)  Yes, we are, my Lord Chairman. In a sense it causes uncertainties. It allows the things that Lord Jopling was referring to to happen. It allows a particular element or part of a business or a particular business to try to make short-term commercial gain out of exploiting a lack of certainty and regulations, which can only be done at the expense of the rest of the industry which is trying to follow a uniform path. We very much want to see regulations in place and we want to see even-handed and consistent enforcement of those regulations. We see that as a fundamental part of helping to build consumer confidence.

  565.  Do you think the revised Directive, 90/220/EEC, will improve matters?
  (Dr Schofield)  90/220/EEC, if it was applied across the board as it stands and we have seen it in the United Kingdom, is actually quite effective at regulating the field trials and commercialisation. Certainly, as my own experience, mainly in the United Kingdom, has shown and also from my sister company in the Netherlands, that it can actually be applied evenly and fairly. I think the problem comes with a lack of understanding and harmonisation of data requirements across the EC in terms of 90/220/EEC, which has caused a lot of problems. It is also rather unfortunate that we are in a revision of 90/220/EEC at this time because it is going to increase uncertainty at a time when we are looking for more certainty. So over the next two years we may be seeing a lot of debate about the scope, liabilities, monitoring, seven-year authorisation schemes, which I think is actually going to be rather unhelpful at this moment, certainly to industry and I am sure to the public, whom we have been assuring we have a good regulatory regime and now it has been taken apart and relooked at.

Chairman:  That brings us to the end of our questions. May I thank you on behalf of the Committee very much indeed for having spared the time to come and give us some extremely helpful and interesting evidence. Thank you.


 
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