Memorandum by Unilever plc
1. Unilever is one of the world's largest companies
operating in the market for fast moving consumer goods. We manufacture
and sell branded products in selected foods, home and personal
care categories. We have operations in over 90 countries across
the world and sell in over 160. We compete for the favour of the
consumer through the long-term appeal of our brands. Their trust
in our products relies on their confidence in their performance
and quality, and of course their safety in use.
2. Unilever supports the responsible use of
modern biotechnology, including genetic modification, within the
framework of effective regulatory control and the provision of
information about its use. The use of this technology to improve
food crops and food products can bring important benefits to society.
Individual applications should be judged on their merits. However,
these important scientific and industrial developments do raise
issues. Unilever advocates effective, clear and properly enforced
regulations. We believe that once society has agreed the ground
rules setting out the conditions for the application of modern
biotechnology, they should be adhered to strictly.
3. As a leading consumer goods company, Unilever
is in tune with consumers' needs to have access to information
on product contents so that they can make informed choices. An
essential component in maintaining public confidence in this technology
is the existence of an effective regulatory framework in which
consumers can trust.
THE UK AND
EU REGULATORY FRAMEWORKS
4. The UK was a pioneer in the development and
implementation of regulations covering biotechnology, in order
to protect workers, public health and the environment. Research
involving genetic techniques in laboratories and contained facilities
has a history of safe use in the UK, stretching back over the
last twenty years. This is due in no small part to the co-operation
and contact between scientists and public authorities which has
been instrumental in developing appropriate science-based legislation.
5. The UK Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification
(and its predecessor, the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee)
is widely respected for its expertise and competence. Composed
of experts from academia and industry, together with public interest
representatives, it is a model that has been adopted by many other
6. The European Commission's first legislative
initiative in the biotechnology field was at the end of 1978,
in order to standardise systems. However, it was not until 1990
that Directives were published which protected workers (90/679)
and regulated the contained use of genetically modified organisms
(90/219) and their deliberate release (90/220). Unfortunately,
this legislation was already out-of-date before it was implemented.
In the words of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science
and Technology: "In framing the Directives . . . the European
Commission took an excessively precautionary line based on a view
of the technology which, in terms of scientific knowledge, was
already obsolescent when the Directives were being prepared in
the late 1980s".
7. Complications were caused by the UK adopting
EU Directive 90/219 on the contained use of genetically modified
micro-organisms in the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained
Use) Regulation 1992. This legislation was never intended for
plant materials: contrary to the Commission's intentions for the
Directive, this inclusion created an "uneven" playing
field in Europe, producing uncertainties and delays in research
8. Harmonisation of legislation and its implementation
across the European Union, and internationally, is essential for
public confidence. See paragraphs 13 and 14 below.
9. As with research, releases into the environment
were anticipated by the UK Government and appropriate controls
put in place at an early stage. As scientific knowledge and experience
has grown these have been successfully incorporated into the statutory
risk-assessment procedures. Unilever has had limited experience
with release of GMOs into the environment because of the company's
limited agricultural research base. The approvals for research
releases were executed by the UK's Advisory Committee on Releases
(ACRE) in a timely and effective manner.
10. In 1990, the European Commission attempted
to create a level playing field for industry with Directive 90/220.
However, this created similar problems to Directive 90/219. It
has failed to create a level playing field, implementation in
member states has been patchy and the delays considerable. This,
combined with a continuing difference in perspectives at European
level, has had a negative impact on academic research, business
and public perception alike.
Novel Foods and their Labelling
11. Unilever recognised the need and supported
the proposal for a Novel Food Regulation (NFR) in Europe. The
Regulation was finally agreed in May 1997 after nine years. During
the discussion period consumer concern has increased because of
the perceived lack of control. Although the NFR constitutes a
political compromise it is an important step in allowing the developments
of modern technology into the market place in a controlled manner.
12. With regard to labelling, the scientific
principles articulated in early drafts of the NFR and embodied
in the guidelines and those produced by the OECD and FAO have
led to a compromise recommendation on labelling in the EU. This,
it is to be hoped, will meet the needs of consumers and food manufacturers,
such as Unilever, on the provision of information and choice and
on a practical and meaningful approach to labelling.
13. As global trade increases, business will
increasingly be faced with the problems that flow from a lack
of harmonisation of regulations relating to the use of genetic
modification in agriculture. This has been highlighted recently
by the continuing divergence of US and EU regulatory procedures
as a result of different approaches to assessments of risk. Different
regulatory regimes also risk undermining public confidence.
14. Clearly, there is a role for both national
regulations and international agreements, as well as industry-wide
codes, as the modern biotechnology industry develops. Unilever
recognises the value of shared international standards and approaches,
both for public confidence and business competitiveness.
15. Different regulatory regimes in different
countries inevitably impact on competitiveness. For example, if
there is a 90-day period for processing release applications in
Europe, compared with 30 days in the US, European companies inevitably
face a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis their American
16. At the same time, since industrial competitiveness
is increasingly built on innovation, and since innovation is as
dependent on consumer trust as on technological developments,
the effects of non-regulation or inappropriate regulation can
have a negative impact on consumer confidence.
17. The challenge is to develop regulatory frameworks
which are workable, able to accommodate evolving best practice,
as international as possible, and which command consumer confidence.
This is an ongoing challenge, and companies and consumers have
a shared interest in seeing this kind of regulatory framework
11 June 1998