Select Committee on European Communities Second Report

Further public concern


118.  Before considering what response to make to the public attitude towards genetic modification, it is as well to investigate the public perception of science and biotechnology. Recent United Kingdom research submitted to the Committee by Professor Gunter, of the University of Sheffield, suggests that although more than half of the population is aware of "biotechnology", few have any clear understanding of its scope. Biotechnology is correctly associated in the public mind with activities such as cloning and genetic modification, but also wrongly with, for example, the use of pesticides in farming and the application of preservatives to food. There is no clear concept of "genes" being part of the natural order; indeed, there is a perception that they may be unique to modified organisms. Many consumers believe that genes are only present in GM foods and are scared at the prospect of catching them should they eat the modified food (see paragraph 109). The "tampering with nature" involved in biotechnology is regarded by many as potentially risky and fraught with ethical problems (pp 342-3).

119.  The recent Eurobarometer 46.1 survey on "The Europeans and modern biotechnology"[165], brought to our attention by Professor Durant, indicated that a majority of Europeans think that the various applications of modern biotechnology will benefit society; however, the applications considered least useful and most risky are perceived to be those in food production and the introduction of human genes into animals to produce organs for transplant to humans (pp 312-3). The public embraces eagerly each further scientific advance in relation to medicines, but is much less willing to do the same for foods. The survey showed that the public believes that risks outweigh benefits for the genetic modification of plants where these are crops in the human food chain, but the modification of flowers and ornamental plants was, however, perceived as beneficial (pp 343-4). Only 30 per cent. believe that some degree of risk is acceptable in order to increase economic competitiveness. 74 per cent. of Europeans questioned in the survey believed that genetically modified food should be labelled. Attitudes vary between Member States, with the greatest lack of enthusiasm for biotechnology and its agricultural and food applications in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Sweden (p 312).

120.  All the major consumers' organisations in the United Kingdom have expressed unease at the use of biotechnology in agriculture. While recognising the potential benefits, the Consumers' Association believed that there were ethical concerns and that there was a need to ensure adequate safeguards. They were convinced that consumers must be able to choose whether to accept or reject GM foods (p 50). The Consumers in Europe Group expressed support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture on condition that it was closely controlled (p 307). They stressed that "the consumer interest must be represented in the approval process to ensure the safety of new products and processes, to maintain and open up choice, to create access to information on the novel foods and processes used to produce them, and to protect the environment." To achieve this there was a need for a food approvals process based on sound scientific evaluation (p 308). While the working of the Community systems can be criticised (paragraphs 164-165), the United Kingdom already has a sound system for the approval of novel foods (see paragraphs 109-116). The system for the approval of releases into the environment must be made equally sound (see paragraphs 148-153).

121.  European confidence in food technology generally is low. The BSE crisis and outbreaks of E. coli 0157 have made the public wary of changes to the food they eat and there is a lack of trust in a little understood regulatory system (Professor Gunter, p 345). While regulatory judgments should be made solely on the grounds of safety, public attitudes towards genetically modified foods and crops should be accommodated in the operation of the regulatory system. Additionally, however, public ignorance may mean that the benefits offered by the technology are insufficiently appreciated. Mechanisms must be found for informing consumers about the benefits and risks of genetically modified crops and foods. Exhibitions such as the Science Museum's "Foodfuture" or the BBSRC's[166] "In-gene-ious", excellent though they are, only touch a small percentage of the population. While it is unnecessary for the public to be aware of the details of the regulatory process, they should be able to discover its fundamentals and the process of product development, selection, testing, regulation and monitoring. Thought should be given to the establishment (within the United Kingdom) of a permanent unified information source (see also paragraph 140).

122.  Professor James considered that the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, if sufficiently independent, was an opportunity to attempt to establish, over time, public trust and confidence in food regulation, something which is currently lacking. In the light of the expected timetable, he recommended a "shadow agency", because delay could not be afforded where proper regulation of food safety was at stake (QQ 648, 650, 652-3; also Professor Bainbridge, Q 702). Internal work in MAFF to prepare for the Agency (Mr Rooker, QQ 613-15) is poor substitute for its launch. We would be encouraged if legislation were to be brought forward in this Session.


123.  The Directive proposes to allow public consultation on each application before the competent authority makes its decision. This did not quite satisfy the Consumers' Association, who desired consumer representation, as they have on food committees in the United Kingdom, on the EC advisory committees (Q 146). We agree that consumer representation should be included on the EC committees, as in the United Kingdom. While complex biological portfolios are unlikely to be of much interest to the general public (and it is to be expected that the majority of comments will be from pressure groups), in the interest of openness, we consider that public comments should be taken into account formally before ACRE makes its recommendation, rather than informally as at present. Government should take account of public opinion (and the public should have the freest access possible to information) but decisions must still be based on sound scientific analysis and the need not to impede scientific progress. (Membership of the United Kingdom's advisory committees is discussed in paragraphs 148-153)


124.  Many witnesses called for the approvals process to be open and transparent (for example, Consumers in Europe Group, p 308), although this is already the case in the United Kingdom, but not at Community level. The advisory committees, ACGM, ACNFP and ACRE, have all attempted to place as much as possible of their deliberations in the public domain[167] (Professor Beringer Q 3). All three committees produce comprehensive documentation and annual reports and all have Internet sites[168] which provide detailed information about their activities, including agendas and reports of their meetings. ACRE's site includes summaries of all releases and applications to market GMOs and has attracted about 7,000 visitors during the last year. Applicants are required to advertise their intention to release modified organisms in newspapers widely read in the region of release. Public registers have been instituted so that information relating to releases is nationally available. Information placed in the registers includes summaries of each application to release or market GMOs, the advice ACRE has given to Ministers about the application, the decision, any conditions attached to the permit to release and all monitoring reports which have been required as a condition of the permit. Very few people have examined the registers (41 between 1993 and 1998), but there have been 364 requests for detailed information. The committees are justifiably concerned that attempts to publicise their roles and to make their scientific assessments available to the general public have not been successful. The advisory committees should continue to place as much information as possible in the public domain. We welcome the Commission's proposal to do the same at Community level and hope that the consideration on the mechanisms to achieve public understanding at Community level will successfully address the need to involve all those using the technology. Transparency, however, must not affect the efficient working of the regulatory committees.


125.  At the United Kingdom level, the openness of the regulators has been exploited by certain groups fundamentally opposed to the technology and committed to preventing its introduction by direct action, such as the destruction of crops on trial release. The NFU argued that nothing will be learnt about the technology if research is continually set back by such acts (Q 292). Mr Meacher stated that "the Government unequivocally condemn the unlawful destruction of GM field trials" but also considered that it would not be right to restrict access to information (Q 626). The chairman of ACRE also did not want to restrict the information it publishes as he considered communication all-important (Professor Beringer, Q 13). We agree with the Ministers that these actions must be condemned, but we are also opposed to restricting the information made available to the public.


126.  As in constructing a regulatory framework (see paragraphs 26-27), the United Kingdom took a lead in assessing the ethics of genetic modification. The reports of the committees chaired by the Rev. Dr Polkinghorne[169] and the Rev. Professor Banner[170] are widely respected. As we have already said, the ethical implications of the technology are being considered by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and have not been a part of this inquiry. We can however comment on the role of ethics within the regulatory system.

127.  The regulatory process should only judge products on safety: ethical questions should be addressed before regulation, not during or after. Ethics are culture-related and political, varying between Member States. As it would be unsatisfactory for ethically sensitive products lawfully manufactured and on sale in one Member State to be prevented from being imported into another[171], ethics cannot simply be dealt with by individual Member States. In the same way as agreeing the principles for risk assessment, the Council of Ministers will need to agree on how to deal with potentially ethically sensitive modifications such as the inclusion of animal or fish genes in crops. This must be done at an early stage, preferably in this revision of the Directive, as such modifications will soon arise and where possible the regulations should avoid having to run to keep pace with the technology. The market might be a suitable arbiter. For some people the use of GM products to any extent is an ethical issue.


128.  Once the regulatory process has ensured safety, the success or failure of the technology must be left to consumer choice in the marketplace. Consumers are justifiably uneasy at the introduction of new technology to their food supply, and especially so when they currently have little option as to whether or not to eat its products, as with the introduction of GM soya and maize. Indeed soya and soya derivatives are present in the majority of processed foods[172]. The consumer has requested and must be provided with the choice as to whether or not to eat GM foods. The two issues involved in providing choice are the supply of GM and non-GM products and labelling.


129.  Whether GM crops and products should be segregated from their unmodified alternatives throughout the food supply chain is a contentious issue. The arguments in favour of compulsory segregation rest on consumer and market choice. The consumer is not just the shopper in the supermarket: manufacturers such as the Scotch Whisky Association advocated segregation to enable them to choose more easily whether to use GM raw materials (pp 389-90). It is not a novel idea: some commodity crops such as wheat and rice are already segregated for their properties. Segregation is not necessarily to the detriment of the technology. Indeed Safeway argued that consumer opposition to biotechnology had been increased by the lack of first wave segregation, which compromised consumer choice (pp 84-5). The commercial success of the Zeneca / Safeway tomato paste has shown that GM can compete when marketed side-by-side with an unmodified product.

130.  On the other hand, once a product has been judged to be safe, there seems little reason to require it to be treated differently from the unmodified alternative. The practicalities of commodity crop farming have also to be considered. For American soya, harvesting happens quickly and crop from miles around is processed via bulk elevators with no regard to its origin or type. Segregation would also require independent supply and processing lines (United Biscuits, Q 578; Mr Rooker, Q 618).

131.  It may be too late to recommend the segregation of soya and maize, not due to any burden this might place on the United States' production line, but because US farmers have taken up the technology so rapidly that the majority of the crop will shortly be modified (American Soybean Association, p 295). European Community and American farmers should realise that there is a potentially lucrative EC market for unmodified commodity crops. Ultimately however, market economics will effectively produce segregation, perhaps based on zoning, as value added products[173] are introduced. Farmers will separate their crops because each will have a different asset and value.

132.  Segregation must be driven by the market and not required by Government, as acknowledged by the manufacturers and Ministers (FDF Q 552, Mr Rooker Q 616). Producers and manufacturers should however be under no illusion as to the climate of consumer opinion in Europe and it would be advisable for the immediate future, as genetically modified products are first brought to market, for segregation to occur to facilitate consumer choice. At this stage of the development of the technology, we are persuaded that segregation will play an important part in rebuilding public confidence. We support, as did the Ministers (Q 605), the segregation of crops when on the farm, their segregation at harvest and full labelling of the harvested crop. Whether segregation should be continued beyond this point is a matter in dispute.

133.  The market-driven alternative to mandatory segregation is often described as "identity preservation"[174]. This has been developed by companies such as Iceland, Spillers and United Biscuits[175] (QQ 163-71, 567, 578). The system depends on securing a supply of unmodified crop by ordering it from a farmer before it is sown and controlling it until it reaches the food factory. While the process requires additional effort, it respects both market forces and consumer choice. The Government have been involved by helping to identify sources of unmodified crops (Q 616) and have so far identified 59 suppliers of unmodified soya in north America[176]. The identity preservation system is to be commended, but it is however only a means of acquiring the ingredients. The crop and product must still be subject to the standard testing and labelling regimes as GM material has often been found in supposedly unmodified shipments (see paragraph 141).

134.  The segregation or identity preservation of commodity crops will not result in modified and un-modified products on sale side by side at the same price, but will result in "GM free" products available at a premium price, similar to organic produce. (The FDF suggested the premium would be 40 per cent., whereas United Biscuits' current suppliers of unmodified crops charge a 10-15 per cent. premium (QQ 555, 580).) The raw ingredients however represent only a small element of the cost to the consumer.



135.  Under United States regulations, once certain GM products have been cleared by the regulatory process they need not be identified to the consumer: "You do not label GM tomato paste? / It is just tomato paste."[177] (Q 387). Many GM foods are absolutely identical to their unmodified equivalents[178] (see paragraph 109). The United States' approach is also based on the belief that, even were the product labelled as GM, the consumer would not be able to make a rational choice based on that information. They consider that the information that a product is genetically modified is not in itself information useful to the consumer, as the consumer is not aware of the working of the technology or of other aspects of their food supply. In this country, however, the major retailers, manufacturers and consumer groups are all convinced that labelling is of primary importance (CA, p 52; CEG, pp 308-9; CWS, p 311; Safeway, p 85; NFU, p 99; FDF, p 333). J Sainsbury's policy for example is that genetically modified food should be labelled to allow informed choice (pp 387-8). Labelling is also advocated so that those opposed to the technology (as against eating food derived from it) may choose not to use it (CWS, p 311). Labels should be "understandable, truthful and not misleading" (Canadian High Commission, p 299) or "clear, honest and neutral" (Austrian Embassy p 297, see also FDF Q 548). Professor Durant suggested that the reason for lack of public support for GMOs is that they are not yet seen as particularly useful: public support will only come when the foods are shown to "possess clear and demonstrable consumer benefits" (p 312). Labelling would help to identify these benefits as products become available (p 313). The United States' approach is not likely to be accepted by European consumers for the foreseeable future. We welcome the requirement in the proposed revision of the Directive for explicit labelling of GM products in order to help provide consumer choice[179]. It is right to provide choice through labelling at this early stage of the introduction of a new technology. The requirement for labelling should however be reviewed in the light of consumer preferences expressed in a changing marketplace. Labelling should not be statutory for anything other than food.


136.  As a result of three major consultations, the Canadian government has required that novel foods derived from GMOs must be labelled only to identify the presence of potential health or safety risks for individuals and where there are significant changes to the composition or nutritional value when compared to the non-engineered food. If there are no such changes, then labels are not required (p 299). This is also the approach in the United States. While this would hopefully be appropriate for the EC at some stage in the future, a more inclusive policy is required at present.

137.  The Commission's proposal to label where the transgene or its product is present but not otherwise drew criticism as a step back from "labelling for process", which would allow consumer choice based on opposition to the technology per se (CWS, p 311). The logic of the Commission's position is that where chemicals produced in novel organisms are identical to chemicals produced by other means they should not require labelling (USDA, Q 387). For example, an oil refined from herbicide tolerant soya should contain neither genes nor gene products, would therefore be identical to oil from un-modified soya and so would not require labelling. There is however, as of yet, no common list of products exempt (for these reasons) from labelling[180]. To require labelling for process in this field (as opposed to its use as a marketing tool, for example for free-range or organic produce) should logically necessitate labelling for process for all foods, identifying for example what fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives and stabilisers were used in the production of an ingredient or product, a suggestion which in practice is not feasible. We agree with the Commission and Government (Q 617) that only products where the transgene or its product are detectable should be labelled. To demand labelling where such detection is impossible would be meaningless. It would also, wrongly, imply traceability (see paragraph 117). However, a Community list of products which do not require labelling is urgently required.

138.  Any ingredient or additive to a product should thus be identified as GM[181] when the presence of GM material can be detected above an established threshold (see paragraphs 141-142). No labelling would be required below the threshold. Additionally, if a finished product contains GM material above a threshold the product itself should be labelled[182]. Any manufacturer wishing to claim "GM free" must be able to prove that claim by testing, and if testing is not possible, then by audit trail (see paragraph 131 below and FDF Q 556). No potentially allergenic or ethically sensitive modifications[183] have yet been presented for approval, but labelling of any such cases will need to be more explicit (see paragraphs 126-127).

139.  The above policy is easily implemented for packaged foods which already bear detailed labels. Unpackaged foods and restaurants present a special problem[184].


140.  Professor Bainbridge illustrated the level of consumer understanding of labels with the example of energy values. Consumers are often keen to know whether or not a food will make them fat and thus examine food labels for Calorie levels. The current SI[185] unit is however the kilojoule, not the kilocalorie, and the information is thus not understood (Q 722). Mr Galvin of the USDA was indeed correct to say that the bald label "genetically modified" or an equivalent is virtually meaningless to the average consumer (see paragraph 135). It is impossible to convey the necessary information to allow informed choice on a product label. Supplementary information must thus be available to the consumer. Though retailers are attempting to provide some information (J Sainsbury, p 389) and manufacturers have equipped their "carelines" to deal with GM-related calls (United Biscuits, Q 573), the information a single company can provide is understandably not of the comprehensive nature to which consumers should be entitled. We recommend that Member State governments co-ordinate (but not necessarily be responsible for) the establishment within each State of a source of information regarding GM foods, to which the consumer may resort for information not provided on the product label (supported by the FDF (Q 549) and more cautiously by United Biscuits (Q 574)) (see also paragraph 121). Retailers, manufacturers, developers, environmentalists and regulators should be involved. As well as providing accurate and comprehensive information, such a resource may also assist with improving public confidence in the technology and its regulation. This should as soon as possible fall under the remit of the proposed Food Standards Agency.


141.  A labelling policy requires a testing policy in order to establish the accuracy of the "contains GM" labelling (or the absence of such labelling) and so provide honest and accurate information to the consumer. This is even the case with segregated or identity preserved (see paragraphs 129-134) ingredients, as demonstrated to us by United Biscuits, who have found up to 1.5 per cent. GM product in supposedly unmodified shipments (Q 567; FDF, Q 554). LGC (formerly the Laboratory of the Government Chemist) has researched the issue of testing for MAFF and, while there are still questions to be answered[186], testing seems both possible and practicable (pp 358-66). Validated quantitative tests need to be developed ("at present these could be considered semi-quantitative" (p 358)) and thresholds[187] need to be agreed across the Community. The absence of a testing and thresholds policy is a serious gap in current European and domestic legislation (FDF QQ 554-8; United Biscuits, p 400), leading to confusion and varying standards amongst manufacturers and inaccurate information for consumers. We recommend that MAFF should issue interim guidelines until a Community policy is agreed, which may not be for several years.

142.  The primary threshold called for is a de minimis threshold, whereby GM presence below the threshold would not require the ingredient or product to be labelled (United Biscuits, Q 567; FDF, Q 554). The threshold for organic products is 5 per cent. non-organic[188] and for durum wheat is 3 per cent. (Mr Rooker, Q 618). The detectable limit for GM is currently 0.1 per cent., A workable but cautious threshold for GM presence in an ingredient would perhaps be 2 per cent., less than half the level which applies to organic products. This threshold on its own would however result in an anomaly which would mislead consumers, whereby an unlabelled product using a lot of an ingredient below the threshold may actually contain more GM material than a labelled product containing only a little of the GM ingredient[189]. The same threshold of 2 per cent. must thus also be set for labelling the end product to prevent this anomaly. This will not require all finished products to be tested as the calculation of GM presence in the end product can be made arithmetically if the level of GM presence in the ingredients is known, as it will be from the test result.

143.  Soya and maize however present a special case due to the uptake of the technology in the Americas. Where soya and maize are concerned, testing should not be required but the ingredient should be automatically labelled as genetically modified. If a retailer should wish not to label, or to market as non-GM, then the ingredient would have to be tested. In our opinion, it would not be sufficient to rely on the supplier's word[190].

144.  Testing procedures are constantly developing and the extent to which it will be possible to detect genes or proteins in refined products is likely to increase. Therefore a product which currently does not require labelling may subsequently have to be labelled in order to comply with the regulation.


145.  We consider that the recommendations above present the best achievable situation, although we recognise that some of our witnesses would have preferred labelling for process. In our view this would be impractical. The worst aspect of the present situation is that there is but a partly-developed policy. For example, the "negative list" is not expected to be published before the end of 1999 (see paragraph 137). If a European strategy is not to be agreed for several years, the Government should introduce its own regulations as swiftly as possible to end manufacturers' confusion and the current misleading of consumers. Labelling, segregation and testing policies should all be reviewed as the technology develops. As GM products become more commonplace, it is also possible that the consumer may cease to demand special treatment for the fruits of the technology.

165  "Eurobarometer 46.1: the Europeans and Modern Biotechnology": the European Commission, Directorate-General XII (Science, Research and Development). The key findings of the survey are summarised by Professor Durant, pp 312-7. Back
166  Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.  Back
167  Appointments and membership of the committees is considered in paragraphs 148-150. Back
168  ACGM & ACRE may be found at and ACNFP at Back
169  Report of the committee on the ethics of genetic modification and food use, HMSO 1993. Back
170  Report of the committee to consider the ethical implications of emerging technologies in the breeding of farm animals, HMSO 1995. Back
171  In the Cassis de Dijon case (Case 120/78, Rewe-Zentrale AG v Bundesmonopolverwaltung fur Branntwein [1979] ECR 649) the Court of Justice established the principle that goods lawfully produced and marketed in one Member State should be admitted into any other Member State without restriction. The Court also recognised however that obstacles to the free movement of goods could be justified if necessary to satisfy "mandatory requirements". These might relate to the effectiveness of fiscal supervision, protection of public health, fairness of commercial transactions or consumer protection. As regards consumer protection the Court has, as a general rule, considered appropriate product labelling to be a sufficient safeguard. Back
172  Approximately 60 per cent. Back
173  For example, soya with enhanced oil properties or vine-ripened tomatoes with delayed ripening/rotting. Back
174  Often confused with traceability. Back
175  United Biscuits have opted for this route as they are aware of a market for unmodified foods due to current consumer uneasiness (Q 567). Back
176  HC Deb., 12 November 1998, col. 471. Back
177  Question to Mr Galvin of the USDA and Mr Galvin's response. Back
178  For example tomato paste or sugar. Back
179  The exact proposals for labelling which currently appear in Annex 4 of the draft Directive require alteration to comply with the compromise achieved in Council Regulation (EC) 1139/98. The regulation requires that all foods which contain genes or gene products from GM maize or soya must be labelled to that effect. It is important that the regulation be generalised to cover all foods derived from genetically modified organisms. Back
180  Termed the "negative list". Back
181  By means, for example, of an asterisk next to the GM ingredient in the ingredients list and an explanation at the end of the list along the lines of "* = a product of genetic modification". Back
182  By stating "Contains the products of genetic modification." at the beginning of the ingredients list. Back
183  Such as a vegetable containing genes copied from an animal. Back
184  See, inter alia, Professor Bainbridge, Q 720. Back
185  Système International - the international system of units of measurement. Back
186  Such as sampling frequency. Back
187  Thresholds determine the percentage "purity" above which a sample is, for example, considered to be unmodified. Back
188  Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91 on organic production of agricultural products and indications referring thereto on agricultural products and foodstuffs, Article 5 (OJ L198 (22 July 1991) pp 1-15). Back
189  For example, soya supply X contains more than 2 per cent. GM material and so requires labelling if used in a food product. Soya supply Y has been "identity preserved" and contains only 0.5 per cent. GM material and thus does not require labelling. If soya Y is used to make something predominantly consisting of soya (For example when used as a meat substitute in vegetarian products) (product A) and soya X to make something using only a trace amount (product B), product B would be labelled but product A would not, even though A contains far more GM material than B. Back
190  This is especially the case with Brazilian soya, where many farmers grow seeds, possibly GM, purchased from the US when the Brazilian government has yet to approve the commercial release of GM crops. Back

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