Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 700 - 719)



  700.  So are you saying that work could be carried out here and that the crop could be grown in a developed country with very little regulation? The only regulation that would happen is when that comes back as a food source within Europe, is it not?

  A.  Yes. I am going over my boundaries and going into that of ACRE. There are issues and there are recommendations being made and I am sure those recommendations will be widely dispersed throughout the world. In fact, ACRE is held in equally high esteem as ACNFP and they are looking at issues in terms of planting distances and effects on the countryside, etcetera, etcetera. In terms of what can we do politically here in the UK to control another country elsewhere in the world, it is a very big question and obviously as a simple scientist it is outside my remit and it is an issue of global politics.

  701.  Even if the work was undertaken here and then exported?

  A.  If the work was undertaken here it would be subject to our own safety and our own regulatory procedures. If it was simply work that needs to be exported because of the climatic conditions, e.g. we cannot grow bananas in the UK and so there would be a certain amount of control or advice there, but if you were asking me what we could do at the final regulatory stage, that is a major political question. It would not be a case of saying, "Here is the technology, get on and grow it", it would be accompanied with the appropriate advice.

Lord Moran

  702.  Could you tell us how you think the status and work of your Committee might be affected if the Food Standards Agency comes into being? From what we have heard it sounds as though it may be some years down the road before it is up and running. It would be operating in the same field as you are.

  A.  We have all heard that and obviously it is not protocol to make any detailed comments prior to the Queen delivering her speech. I am certainly unequivocal in my assertion that this is a major opportunity for us to instill consumer confidence and a major part of acceptance not just of GM foods, I hasten to add, but this is an attempt by the agency to bring things under one banner and perhaps engender an holistic approach. The White Paper was very explicit that the work of the ACNFP would continue. Indeed, I would hope that we would continue to earn the respect of peers and worldwide respect. The difference would simply be that rather than reporting to Ministers who make the decisions after taking our advice, we would report through the commissioners of the agency. I do think it would be a wonderful help to us in terms of allowing us to evidence our real concern for the consumers. There has been so much hype leading up to the formation of the agency. The show is on the road. Procedures and structures and things are obviously being developed and in a sense the secretariats of the committees are there and they will still operate and service the committees in the same way that they do. So it is not an issue affecting the Committee directly, I think it is much more an issue of consumer confidence.

Lord Grantchester

  703.  I wonder whether you would like to expand on your answer to Lord Redesdale's question about the fact that when food comes into this country you would require it to have undergone an environmental assessment. I just wonder whether this is always the case because when the Minister of Agriculture was here a few weeks ago I pressed him on whether there was a concern that products could come in through the back door as it were without undergoing the gamut of tests and standards required in this country. His response was, for example, that in the United States the environment was not a concern . I wonder whether you would like to comment on whether products and foodstuffs can come into this country without having undergone full testing and escape your Committee.

  A.  As I have said before, the whole area of the environmental assessment if it is not applied to a novel food is somewhat outside of my remit. If it were a food that had not been imported into the country before, then indeed it would be a novel food and we would ask questions about the environmental assessment and obviously pass that on to ACRE. We do not have on the Committee agronomists, horticulturists and the sort of wealth of experience that we would need to answer in detail these sort of environmental questions. Any novel food would come before the Committee and part of our deliberations is to ensure that the appropriate environmental assessment has been carried out.

  704.  What is behind my question is the different regulatory standards that operate in the US and EC. I am trying to identify whether this is a problem.

  A.  I think you have identified where there is a potential problem and where further work needs to be done and where again not only do we need to take an holistic approach to the many food chain issues that there are, novel foods, environmental and a whole host of other considerations, but we need to take a global view because indeed the food chain is global. I was talking to the Food & Drink Federation and they were at pains to stress, which we know anyway, the global nature of their suppliers and indeed the disparate nature of their suppliers. They will buy particularly commodity crops from sources depending on the market price, etcetera. Taking a simplistic view, it is very very important that we are aware of that, but what we can do in a practical sense in the UK or the EU to control USA FDA decisions is limited in a sense, but what we must do is enter into dialogue and continue the dialogue because there are issues about crops that are sourced elsewhere.

  705.  Obviously it is of concern to the farmer if his competitors are able to grow products from seeds that have not yet been properly assessed within this country.

  A.  Absolutely, yes.

Lord Gisborough

  706.  Professor, how do you envisage keeping crops which have been engineered to produce active pharmaceuticals separate from crops grown to produce food?

  A.  This is actually a very important question and again I am not passing the buck but I will preface my answer by saying that it is the business of ACRE. From a scientific perspective, such crops will need to be kept isolated from food crops and we are concerned from the food end. Isolation distances, as I understand it and I could not quote specific ones, are already used as part of the seed certification process to ensure that the purity of a seek stock is good and specialist growers do have experience of growing so-called identity preserved non-GM crops, it may be for food use, it may be for industrial use, it may be for pharmaceutical uses. Recently SCIMAC have actually issued guidelines for commercial management of GM crops in the UK and perhaps this could form a future basis for separation of non-GM crops. I referred earlier to the fact that this is one area where there is more research going on and indeed more research needed. Questions arise like What sort of guarantee do you want? Is a 99.5 per cent guarantee that the crop is GM free sufficient? It is impossible to give a 100 per cent guarantee. Obviously I have referred to segregated planting. There are issues about segregation in terms of harvesting and segregated processing, very very major, very difficult issues. There are things that can be done genetically to render the pollen sterile or indeed plants with no pollen. You need to be aware of the nature of the crops themselves. Many of our crops, maize, sorghum I think is one, soya, sunflower, are hybrid crops where by definition you cannot save the seeds, etcetera. I understand that hybrid rice is being developed. Then there are some other much more controversial technologies. The article in the Times that I referred to earlier on this morning referred to "terminator technology". In a sense there are a whole host of arguments against it, but this is one case where terminator technology would actually remove the problem. There is often no simple answer because solving one problem might create three or four that could be as big or bigger. There are also other technologies like chloroplast genes. It is now possible to introduce genes into the chloroplast so that they are not expressed in the pollen and so there would not be the same sort of danger of transfer. Certainly from a UK point of view the only one where there is anywhere near consent in the near future is in terms of herbicide tolerant crops and the big problem in the UK, as your Lordships I am sure are aware, is with rape because of the way that pollen spreads over vast distances and the ease with which rape actually crosses and intercedes with some of our native weeds and other plants. That is trying to give you an holistic view. It is not my main area of expertise or indeed the Committee's remit.

  707.  There is considerable concern about the super weed. You mentioned that the pollen can be made sterile. Would that be the single answer to the danger of the super weed?

  A.  No, it would not be the single answer because it is not technically possible to do that in every case. Genetics is so complicated and it is not a case of you identify one gene and it has this one effect. Often there is a particular effect that you see. How much pollen is produced or the nature of the pollen grain or how it spreads or how and when it fertilises, etcetera is controlled by a whole host of different genes that influence different parts of the process. So it is a very very difficult technical problem. I raised it as something that perhaps has potential and it is being researched and it is worth looking at in much more detail.

Lord Rathcavan

  708.   Are you concerned that GM foods, which indeed may not be novel, may be unwittingly imported into the United Kingdom from countries where safety assessments are fairly rudimentary or lax or even non-existent?

  A.  Really the simple answer is that under the Novel Food Regulation all foods that contain GMOs or are derived from GMOs are classified as novel foods and have to be approved before they can be sold in Europe. So the EU, and specifically the UK in this case, is not reliant on either rudimentary or non-existent safety assessments performed elsewhere in the world. We cannot shortcut the process and we need to be as cautious as possible. However, I explained to your Lordships that the Novel Food Regulation is very recent and we are seeing the first few cases coming through that system and we need some time to see how it operates and to sit back from it. At the moment the timespan is laid down in a very tight, very explicit fashion. We need to see how it operates. It looks at the moment as if there is a bit of a black hole in Brussels and the limiting factor is going to be the Scientific Committee for Food and how quickly that can deal with the backlog and how quickly that can turn things around. We also need time. We need time to be able to demonstrate and earn mutual respect. I have sat here telling you that I believe that the ACNFP is held in great esteem and indeed the regulation was based on the guidelines that the ACNFP and my predecessors and indeed the secretariat worked so hard to develop. Other countries have other competent authorities who work in various ways and we have to earn their respect and we have to see how they operate and we basically have to develop that sort of competence that comes from knowing one another and how we operate and a clarity of procedures, etcetera. In terms of the second part of your question about the actual efficiency of the process, I think it is too early to say, "Right, this is what we can do. Let us change this and let's change that." Let us work through more submissions under the Novel Food Regulation, let us record very carefully how it works operationally and let us look and see if there are indeed backlogs in Brussels and what can be done about them and then start to say, "Well, it is not efficient because this or that or the other has gone wrong". We certainly should not be seen to be taking shortcuts in the name of efficiency because we will be compromising our guiding principle of safety and the precautionary principle. It is very difficult to see what else could be done short of some generic European central committee. I doubt that that is round the corner in the near future.


  709.  What is the process for bringing imported novel foods to your attention? Is it an obligation on the importer to notify you if it is an imported food?

  A.  If it is a novel non-GM food, that is right, there is an obligation. The GM foods normally come from the companies who were actually producing the novel insert or whatever it may be, but there would be an obligation on the importer to inform the Ministry through the normal system of trading and decisions would be made by the secretariat as to whether or not this was a novel food. I have referred to the information that the importer would need to work through and provide. It would come to the Committee.

  710.  Are you confident that all novel non-GM imported foods are brought to your attention as required?

  A.  Obviously I see it when it reaches the Committee. It is difficult for me to comment generically on systems of trade and tariffs that are way outside of my experience, but having worked with the secretariat and with colleagues in MAFF, for instance, I have to say that I have respect and am in awe of their ability and their dedication to ensuring that the systems do operate effectively.

  711.  It has never become an issue.

  A.  That is right. There are obviously questions in terms of the regulatory system and the Laycott enforcement system, etcetera. Again this is where something like the Food Standards Agency would be so wonderful because in a sense what might be seen as disparate bits of activity across different government departments and across different committees could be seen under one banner.

  712.  It might be different in the future with imported novel GM foods. It might be less easy to know if foods that were GM modified were imported from third countries. Could a situation arise where you were not sure that all GM modified imported foods were being reported to you?

  A.  Short of saying that I could be at every port watching every cargo being unloaded, it would be impossible to be totally specific, but I have to say that provided—and it becomes a criminal matter if the law is being flouted—the regulations and indeed the letter of the law is being adhered to then I do have every confidence. I should add that it is not simply a case of importing a novel food per se but a food that might be used for a novel purpose. So some of the things that come to the Committee are not necessarily novel in that they have not been in the UK before but they are being used in a novel way.

Lord Gisborough

  713.  Is there any possibility that seeds might have come from GM plants which have been grown where there are no regulations and so we might be importing a seed which has got peculiar properties?

  A.  I hate to keep saying it is out of my remit, but I understand that there are very stringent procedures in the lead up to the stage where seeds are certified and I presume this would include details of the origin of the seed and the agronomic conditions under which it was grown, i.e. if there was a claim that it is an organic type, a natural type product, how close it is to being 100 per cent GM free, etcetera. So all that data would actually be included. There was a joint press statement by Michael Meacher and Jeff Rooker just last week in terms of the extra work that needs to be done to look at this area and people like English Nature and nature conservationist societies generally are actually addressing this problem in their statements in terms of pulling back from growing some of these GM things in the UK. Once you start talking globally, as in all things GM technology is not an exception in this, it becomes a matter of international diplomacy and international law and all sorts of areas such as import trades tariffs that are way outside my remit as a scientist.

Lord Gallacher

  714.  Professor Bainbridge, leaving out of the reckoning the Food Standards Agency, have you any thoughts on how we can maintain public confidence in the regulatory process for foods?

  A.  Yes. Part of my mission is to try and be very proactive in this respect. I think there are lots of things we can do. Certainly I see it as my role obviously to be completely independent. I do not see that as meaning I should not talk, for instance, to retailers, to food industry representatives, etcetera. At the end of the day everyone that is involved in food chain supply wants one thing and that is safe food. We need to get that message across to the general public loud and clear. I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding and there is a great deal of hype. It does not help that there are scientists——scientists disagree anyway, they are bound to in terms of some of the detailed arguments and it sounds very patronising to say to the general public, "Well, you wouldn't understand, but I am just telling you I am right", and I would not presume to do that, but there are those scientists that find it easier to make a name by being controversial than they do for their science and so we have to cope with all of these things. Many of the NGOs are of age now and there are people who have made a career out of protesting about various issues. Indeed, I think it is very very important as an independent committee that we should talk to these people and work through many of these issues and often by doing that we can identify possible ways forward. In terms of the transparency, there is clearly a move right across government for further transparency. My style is to be open and accessible and friendly. Since I have been Chair of the Committee we have asked for non-attributable minutes that are now published. 1991 was the first ACNFP Annual Report. We issue press releases. I am trying to be as receptive as I can to requests for media time and things like that. It is difficult when you do another job as well and you live at the other end of the country, but I think all these things help. It is a question of trying to be honest and open and not saying, "Oh, it is 100 per cent safe, don't worry." No, we cannot say that, but let us try and work through some of the issues and where we do have a problem, where we do need more research—and you have articulated several areas this morning—let us be open and say that. I think all of these things will help consumer confidence. We are never going to win everyone over. I think it is quite important that people have the information in a form that they can understand and do have free choice. People have free choice now and it is increasingly so. For several years you have been able to go to the supermarket and buy conventional fruit and vegetables or pay a premium for organic ones. I am sure your Lordships are aware of the initiatives to make non-GM foods available in the supermarket. I can foresee a time when the standard food which will contain GM will be labelled accordingly and there will be non-GM products at a premium. We have a long way to go. We have a lot of issues to work through, analytical issues, regulatory issues, before we are at that stage, but I do see that as the way forward. I do not see it as part of my role as the Chair, metaphorically speaking, to push GM foods down everyone's throats. I think it is important to say they are here, they are a fact of life, but these are the regulatory systems that we have in place. We do caution "But please spend your money and take your choice". I think that is absolutely vital.

  715.  Are you satisfied that the secretariat is PR minded?

  A.  I have enormous respect for the secretariat and I would not like to make any comment about whether anyone is PR minded or not. Obviously there are restrictions on civil servants in terms of things that they can and cannot say. This is the beauty of a system whereby committees have independent chairs. I obviously work very very closely with the secretariat. I ask the secretariat in many cases for information and I ask for support, I accept that, but at the end of the day I am not prepared to compromise my science or my knowledge for any particular viewpoint. I think my predecessor made a reference to his role as being a tightrope walker between the consumer on one side and government on the other and I think it is absolutely crucial for consumer confidence that people like myself are seen to be working very closely with government, but we are independent and I am free to speak my mind. I hope I am PR minded, but I do not think it is for me to say whether the secretariat are or not. I was enormously encouraged when I saw the plans for the agency and reference to the Communications Unit because it is my view that there are issues and there always will be issues and there will undoubtedly be further scares in a whole range of areas right across the food chain. It is very very important that they are handled correctly. There is no magic answer to that, otherwise some clever PR man would have made a fortune by saying this is the way to handle it. I do feel that Government has some way to go in terms of handling some of these issues. I am sure the Government is aware of that anyway. I think the Communications Unit—mind you, we are expecting a lot from it—is something that could be right up there in front in terms of the consumer. I am sure if we made our meetings completely open we would be flooded with observers and after a bit they would fall off because people would find it quite dry and boring. It is the media hype end that has got to be handled absolutely fairly and squarely.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

  716.  Professor, has your Committee had any thoughts on the merits or demerits of a moratorium on GMOs?

  A.  We have not discussed it in committee as a formal agenda item, but I certainly have very strong opinions and so I will give you my opinions and obviously they impinge on the workings of the Committee in a sense. My science goes back a long way pre-GM days. I did a lot of research at Durham when it was on mutation and strain selection and about that time there was a major conference in the States and there was the Asolomar conference and that led to a moratorium on GM work. Perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration and I have not got time to talk your Lordships through the history, but it fizzled out after a couple of years and it was felt quite clearly after public consultation that the scientists should monitor themselves and a framework was put up to allow that. I understand that at the moment a moratorium would be illegal anyway, but leaving that issue aside, I think it would be a disaster because I think it would be tantamount to saying, "We are not really sure so we had better step back and we had better stop this work, we had better stop the progress of the research and the development of the applications". I think at the end of the day we have to be minded about issues like industrial competitiveness and economic concerns. Even as an academic scientist you cannot be divorced from economics these days and certainly in my managerial role then perhaps the best training would be to be an accountant. If there were to be a moratorium, what good would it do? Where would it take us? It would allow us to step back, but it would do no more than that because you have to pick up from where you left off two years on, five years on and anyway, would it be a moratorium on growing the crops or on doing the laboratory work or selling food or would it be the lot? So there are some major issues there. What would be necessary to say that it could come to an end? You could not conceivably have it forever anyway. So what could trigger the end of the moratorium? And if you could not do any work I am baffled to say how the end would be triggered. There are a whole host of issues. In my opinion it would be worth no more than the paper it would be written on because you could not enforce it globally and we would be very wrong to assume that it is only in Europe and the States where with political will we might get some agreement if it was deemed that we should, but we would be very wrong to say these are the only countries where the work is going on anyway. So for a whole host of very real reasons I am totally opposed to a moratorium and I believe that that is the Government view as well.

Lord Rathcavan

  717.  You were talking about public confidence. Would not public confidence be improved and public awareness if there were more GM products in the market? You referred to tomato paste being the only experience the consumer can have of a direct GM product that is easy to compare with a non-GM product in price and quality. The concern is where there is an ingredient of soya flour. Looking into your crystal ball, what new pure GM products do you see coming on to the supermarket shelves like tomato paste?

  A.  I have to say that the majority of products that I see coming through are mainly commodity products. I have referred to some lines of potato for instance. They are not ready yet but they will come through. There are so many products from soya, the oils and things like that. I think the phrase nutriceuticals has been coined. There will always be changes to fatty acid profiles to make them much more preferable in terms of the problems with the UK diet and cholesterol, etcetera, etcetera and tailoring them, products with added vitamins and things like this. So I do not see many totally pure products coming through. There are undoubtedly vegetable crops, fruit crops being developed for enhanced yield and enhanced disease resistance. There is work being done on rice, etcetera. The ones that are causing concern are things like soya because you hear that in excess of 60 per cent of all processed food contains soya, but I would guess if I stood in the street and said, "What is lecithin?", most people would not know that there was a connection between that and soya. They might know the connection of soya oil by virtue of the name. Obviously if Sainsbury's and Safeway's, the two companies that sell the product, report enhanced sales of the GM product—— and I do not believe it is just on price because certainly in the one of those two supermarkets where I shop the price is identical, it is just that the conventional tin of puree is 100 grams and the GM tin is 125, but unless you hold them side by side most people would be unaware of that. They are certainly very very clearly labelled.

Lord Moran

  718.  Could I follow up the question about labelling which you have just been talking about. I wondered if you could tell us what you think about the labelling of GM and GM contained foods. It seems to me that the whole point of labelling is to make it clear to the consumer that it does or does not contain a significant element of GM.

  A.  I agree with your Lordship on that assertion. You are right, the point of labelling is to make things clear to the consumer and when they have got clear information they can obviously make a choice. In my opinion in order to do that all GM foods should be labelled. Obviously I am aware that discussions are going on in Europe about the practicalities of thresholds, but it is these very difficult issues that we have to address when setting thresholds because you cannot say 100 per cent GM free below which labelling would not be required. When you are looking at a processed product that might contain soya, a pizza for instance, a very small proportion of that pizza would be soya flour and a proportion of that could be GM soya. How far down the line do you go? So the whole issue of thresholds is very important. I think we need to come to some agreement in Europe—and I know negotiations are underway—of a sensible way of ensuring that in as far as is reasonably practical a food labelled GM free means GM free, it means just that. As you know, there are GM free labels but it is not part of the official labelling legislation.

  719.  Have you a view yourself on what would be a sensible way of determining that threshold?

  A.  I think that we should set a minimum threshold. We should produce a negative list of products where there is no DNA or no protein present and that should be published. Refined soya oil is no different in any way, physical, chemical, nutritional or any other way, from refined soya whether it comes from GM or non-GM so therefore that should be part of the list.

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