Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 580 - 602)

WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER 1998

MR STEPHEN PARRY, MISS JOANNA SCOTT and MR CLIFF MORRISON

  580.  What we are looking at here is a certain business opportunity. There will be a very small market of certain people who are so concerned about the issue of GM crops that they are prepared to pay a good more for the product. Would that be a proper way to sum it up? So it does not really matter whether you have added cost when you can get it back from the consumer, but that does not mean that the vast majority of consumers will be prepared to pay that extra cost.
  (Mr Morrison)  Herein lies the crux of the matter because we are putting all this time and effort in trying to establish this source of supply of the soya. I have only mentioned the soya here. At the moment we are not passing that cost on but clearly when we do yes, there will be a certain sector of the public that will be prepared to pay for it, and, of course, if they are not prepared to pay for it, then there will be no incentive for the likes of Spillers to supply or the likes of ourselves to produce.

Lord Moran

  581.  Are you and Spillers operating independently on this?
  (Mr Morrison)  Yes. I did say that they had set this up. In fact, they are only a small supplier to us and our main suppliers of segregated traditional crops are two other producers. I put this particular one up because they are the only company that I am aware of that has actually produced this marketing information.

  582.  On traceability, I think you have really, with your flow chart and your explanation of it, dealt with it. I do not know if you want to say any more about it. You have told us about the fact that there will be a cost and it is really a question of estimating the market. Are there precedents for traceability on other products?
  (Mr Morrison)  Yes. Just to continue on this, there is an important aspect to this. You have seen the multiple steps and, although we have gone to these great lengths, as Mr Parry said, we have still ended up with some of these materials having up to 1.5 per cent. GM presence due to this adventitious contamination through the process. So we always have this at the back of our minds, that we have done all this but we cannot get better. So that is an unfortunate aspect of it. Yes, there are other traceability systems, obviously the organic traceability one, where I think their levels of acceptance can be, I think it is up to 4 per cent. of mix, and there are various other farm assured systems that supermarkets are operating these days, that retailers are operating, and on top of that, of course, there is now the beef passport system as well, which can set a precedent.

Chairman

  583.  Could we turn to labelling and could I ask you what your policy concerns on labelling are? Could I also ask you a specific question about assurance to consumers that GM foods are regulated. Might there be merit in a kitemark?. Is there any scope for something like that in the field of genetically modified foods?
  (Mr Parry)  My Lord Chairman, perhaps I could respond from three perspectives. UB's policy is certainly to label according to both British and EU laws and we supplement this with customer Careline services, where people can get more information on demand. However, as I referred to in my opening remarks, and Mr Morrison has also referred to subsequently, we firmly believe that if we do not differentiate a product which has been manufactured with traditional materials from a product prepared with GM ingredients but through whatever means is adventitiously contaminated, we do not allow the consumer any choice at all. That would be the net result, and this is why we believe that it is another reason why the industry itself urgently needs both the threshold and the de minimis level clarified. That is a fundamental issue and certainly it was referred to by the FDF in their submission earlier on. I would go further, to say that as a business we actually do not support negative labelling, i.e. GM-free, and there are two elements to it. One, we believe it would be misleading the consumer, as in our opinion it could potentially send the wrong message about genetic modification, but I think a more important element through the flow charts that Mr Morrison has referred to and the references which have been made earlier in both submissions today, is that substantiation of such a claim we practically believe to be unachievable, which is a fairly fundamental point but it is a perception and belief that we have.

  584.  And the kitemark?
  (Mr Morrison)  If you are not making a GM-free claim, which, as we said, we do not believe we can, then we cannot see the benefit of actually making a GM kitemark presence. I am not sure we would see any benefits for it across the business.

  585.  But then what does the issue of choice come down to if you cannot say a product is GM-free? What then is the choice that the consumer has?
  (Mr Morrison)  I think the key here is the threshold limits, which we really do need to have in place to take account of the low level of contamination that we talked about, because if we have to label across GM presence then the consumer has no choice at all but by setting this de minimis threshold level, then this immediately gives the consumer a choice.

  586.  But you are saying GM-free? Above that level it is GM-free?
  (Mr Morrison)  No, we are not saying GM-free. You are just not making a claim. So you either say there is GM presence, as per the legislation as it currently stands, or you are not saying anything at all, and we would advocate not saying anything at all for products below a threshold baseline.
  (Mr Parry)  But against clearly defined threshold and de minimis levels, which would then also substantiate and endorse the significant segregation and traceability that Mr Morrison referred to earlier on. So we believe that there is a distinction that can be drawn.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  587.  The choice is between having a little bit or a lot and if you want a little bit you pay a lot of money for it?
  (Mr Morrison)  I guess that is quite true.

Lord Moran

  588.  Have you come under any pressure from wholesalers, supermarkets and those for whom you make goods, either for or against genetic modification?
  (Miss Scott)  Yes, we have come under quite a degree of pressure from a variety of sources. I think the Committee is very well aware of the stance on GM of certain supermarket chains and the direct impact that has on our business and that clearly, to respond to that, we have to do one of two things. We either have to source traditional traceable crop or we feel if we are to provide guarantees of "GM-free" status, then we will have to reformulate a particular ingredient such as soya out of our products. Clearly in terms of how that corresponds to our own company's position for our own branded goods, there is an important point here. Fortunately, we are currently in a similar position. Wherever possible for our own brands we are sourcing traditional traceable crops, but as I think I implied, the position and stance of retailers is obviously influencing very heavily what we are doing as manufacturers. Just to touch on some other pressures that we are also receiving, we are beginning to observe the involvement of local authorities influencing school canteen meals and tuckshop foods. There is a move potentially to exclude all GM ingredients from school canteens and from tuck shops. Indeed, we have heard from one wholesaler that provides canteens that they will no long stock any branded product which contains GM as an ingredient. So as a manufacturer we are now being dictated to about what we can and cannot have in our products, and this is obviously an increasingly worrying concern to us.

Lord Jopling

  589.  Could I turn to the bioscience companies. Do you have any reservations about the way they conduct their affairs? Have you heard suggestions that they tend to go round the world developing their products in areas where there is the minimum of regulation, or—shall I put it this way—they are helpfully regulated? This Committee had a case of this some time ago, of genetically modified salmon which a company wanted to develop, was barred from doing it in America and so came to Scotland, of all places, where they were permitted to do it. Are you uneasy about the way in which these bioscience companies seem to go round the world finding easy places to carry out all sorts of experimentation?
  (Miss Scott)  Perhaps I can pick up a general point. Clearly we have no problem with biotechnology's involvement but what we object to strongly is the imposition of biotechnological advances on manufacturers and retailers like ourselves, and also clearly on consumers, without there having been proper, adequate consultation and review of the scientific evidence. Indeed, this is historical but our views have not been sought in the past and one might say that our views have even been trampled on by the fact that they have not been sought. I think we have mentioned before that the one non-negotiable aspect of our business is that our foods must be safe and they must be perceived as being safe by consumers, and we believe that consumer anxiety rises and is a difficulty to manage if we do not have an adequate framework and system to manage the introduction of new developments, and inform the public, as I indicated in one of my earlier responses, about new developments prior to products actually being on the shelf. So we feel that the lack of consultation, the lack of notice, the imposition of some of the past biotechnological advances, has not been helpful in gaining public acceptance. I have to say, regarding your specific question about biotechnological companies seeking favour from countries where the regulations might be more sympathetic, I personally do not have any knowledge of that, but my colleagues may have.
  (Mr Parry)  No.

  590.  Could I go back to what you said a few seconds ago. You said you had been "trampled on", I think were the words you used, by the bioscience companies. I think it is a terribly important point that you are making to the Committee. I wonder if we could have some examples, either now or in a paper that you might submit to us, of the way in which you feel you have been trampled on because I think this is important. But I am surprised that you do not have a view as a company with regard to the point I made about bioscience companies running round the world looking for easy places in which to do whatever they want to do?
  (Miss Scott)  I think rather than not having a view we are just not aware that that is taking place, but my colleagues or others in the industry may be more familiar with that.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

  591.  Just to make sure that we know what everybody is talking about, what Lord Jopling is referring to is a company that wished to undertake trials on fish in containment. Having done that in the United Kingdom they did not wish, and would not have been allowed, to put the product into the environment. It was not that they found the system here any easier to get a product into the marketplace. So I would not want to give the impression that, in fact, our regulations allowed products to be introduced here that had not been introduced somewhere else; it was merely the testing. You do a lot of work also in China, do you not?
  (Mr Parry)  We do some but it is not particularly significant.

  592.  Do you produce products for the Chinese marketplace?
  (Mr Parry)  We do produce some, yes.

  593.  What is the reaction there of the consumer to these products?
  (Miss Scott)  We do not have detailed knowledge of consumer attitudes but certainly my role of communicating to the business is international and we do so on this issue. We are not aware of any significant, or any, feedback at all from that market, whereas we do pick up quite considerable differences of public attitudes and opinion right across our European markets.

  594.  So what you are referring to is the different views of public consumer opinion in different parts of the world when you are referring to other issues?
  (Miss Scott)  Yes.

  595.  Which are very different?
  (Miss Scott)  Absolutely.

  596.  In the United States of America there is an enormous consumer acceptance of this technology, as there obviously is in China. You have never heard of anybody from there, whereas it is just in Europe that there is a particular concern?
  (Miss Scott)  Indeed.
  (Mr Morrison)  Could I add a further point. Our regulations, of course, do cover the aspects that you are talking about, so even if research is undertaken with agreement to do that under 90/220, if the licensing is approved to do the initial work and then it is not allowed to be released, does that not really show that the system is actually working?

Lord Wade of Chorlton:  Exactly.

Lord Jopling

  597.  With great respect, no, especially if the initial work is done in a country where there is virtually no legislation or monitoring, and I think there are countries where that is the case.
  (Mr Morrison)  As I understand the legislation—and we are not directly involved in it——

  598.  Sorry, I am not talking about the United Kingdom. I am talking about other countries around the world which have virtually no regulation whatever.
  (Mr Morrison)  All we can come back to then is the fact that we do need, on an international basis, a body to advise, to regulate. Mr Ferguson referred to an overarching body earlier and was really saying that that overarching body needs to be international rather than United Kingdom-based or EU-based, but I certainly think that what we have here seems to be working quite well and we would like to see it extended.

  599.  Just to finish this, coming back to the "trampled on" point, can we receive a paper from you on what you had in mind when you said you had been extremely irritated to have been trampled on by various bioscience companies?
  (Miss Scott)  I think we were really citing the introduction of the commodity crops. I am not sure that there are details that would elaborate more than the general perception of the food industry in the United Kingdom and across Europe, which was that, although we are in discussions, as colleagues at FDF have said, through trade bodies and so on, largely the introduction of the US commodity crops into the United Kingdom and into Europe was not debated and discussed in detail in advance and, therefore, the public in general in the United Kingdom and Europe did not have the opportunity, as I said, of properly debating and discussing the introduction of, and developing, an appropriate system of managing the introduction of the particular commodity crops into these countries. So I think it was a general comment that I was making rather than more specific detailed comments.
  (Mr Morrison)  Could I add one point to that. As we have explained about the traceability and the great lengths that we have gone to, I think that actually reflects the problems we have in being able to have a product that we did not need to label because we could not do it directly because of the commingling issues on soya and possibly as well on the maize.

Chairman

  600.  Would you go so far as to say that the lack of any international agreement at the present time on the handling of GM crops is something that is causing you problems today, or if not today, is likely to in the near future?
  (Mr Parry)  Undoubtedly we believe that to be the case and I think that Mr Ferguson in his comments earlier on regarding the international overarching co-ordination amply described our feelings as well. So the answer to your question is undoubtedly, yes.

Lord Grantchester

  601.  As a company, are you involved in any work on a code of practice and, if so, with whom are you developing it? Are you involved in any way with a governmental body or a European body? If not, should they be involved?
  (Mr Morrison)  We are not directly involved, no. Obviously we were very much involved in the development of the IGD guidelines but we are not involved further. We are aware of the NFU initiative but if there were to be any guidelines, then I think they need to be on a much wider scale than just the United Kingdom because most of these GM crops are likely to come from abroad in the near future.

Chairman

  602.  Are the delays involved in the processing of applications for the release of genetically modified products within the European Union's regulatory system also something that causes you concern or problems?
  (Mr Morrison)  Of course, that is further down the chain than we are but we are aware that there is concern about the length of time that they do take to be approved. If it is a United Kingdom one, it would have to go through the United Kingdom process and then that would have to go to the European Union as well and perhaps it may be better to have a—we keep talking about overarching but an overarching European Union protocol, but very much based on the United Kingdom system because that one seems to be working quite effectively.

Chairman:  This overarching committee is going to have an awful lot to do. That brings us to the end of our questions, so perhaps I can thank you all very much indeed for having come to give us evidence. It has been extremely helpful and interesting.



 
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