Examination of witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 13 MAY 1998
BURKE and PROFESSOR
40. I would have thought that that argument
could be used for many other things. I do not see why only ostrich
meat comes within that category.
(Professor Burke) I am told that supermarkets
work on the amount of material moved per square metre of shelf.
If something does not move it goes off the shelf very fast. They
are running experiments all the time on supermarket shelves as
to whether or not people buy certain products. I have a loyalty
card and perhaps Members of the committee also have one. They
tell us not only what we buy but what our socio-economic status
is, where we live and so on. They have a huge amount of information
as to how the market works.
41. Under the novel food regulation MAFF
is the authority which assesses the risk of modified foods and
animal feeds. How are environmental concerns, if there are any,
(Professor Burke) They would go to ACRE chaired
by Professor Beringer. There is cross-membership. One member of
ACNFP was also a member of ACRE, and there was also cross-membership
of other committees. We would cross-refer it and not attempt to
answer an environmental issue because of our lack of expertise.
There are always civil servants who work with ACRE present at
the meeting. That has never been a problem. That system of communication
between a series of committees works well. What is sometimes lost
is the big issue which does not fall into any one committee slot
and is not part of any one remit. I think that that is something
which the Food Agency will need to consider. Professor Beringer
also referred to some of the bigger issues that did not fall within
the remit of any one particular committee.
42. He referred to issues like fewer insects
for birds, but that would not come under the Food Agency?
(Professor Burke) No.
43. Can you give an example of something
that would come under the Food Agency?
(Professor Burke) Animal feed did at one time.
Looking back over the period since the introduction of genetically
modified soya, we were asked whether it was safe. We were confident
that it was as safe as any product was likely to be. But we were
not asked about the implications for the food chain of introducing
a genetically modified material as a commodity foodstuff. I am
not sure whose responsibility that is. That is an illustration
of "the bigger issues", ie the effects downstream in
the market of approving something that may have implications for
farmers, grocers and so on.
44. There have been a good many suggestions
that in the interests of the consumer products should be labelled
to show where a genetically modified organism has been used. If
there is to be labelling how should it be done? Should all products
derived from GMOs be labelled as GM even where the gene and gene
product are absent from the product, for example as in oils? Should
the label indicate if the gene product is present but the gene
probably is not, especially if the gene product is allergenic,
for example with genes of nut origin, or if the processed product
contains a small quantity of the GMO, for example a pizza which
contains a small amount of soya bean oil or flour derived from
(Professor Burke) The labelling issue picks up
the two points that I tried to distinguish earlier. Food safety
has no implications for labelling. There is no question of an
unsafe food going through to the market. You do not label something
as unsafe. You label because the consumer has asked for information
about the amount of materials or their origin. At one time I thought
that that such information was not needed, but I am persuaded
that if the consumer wants information we should provide it. The
difficulty is how it should be provided. How much labelling should
there be, and what form should it take? What is both practical
and informative? There is a trade-off between the two aims. One
can take your particular example of the oil derived from rape
where there is no gene product and no DNA present and the oil
is substantially the same as normal oil. One can take another
example which is a real possibility. If sugarbeet is modified
to make it disease resistant should the sucrose derived from that
sugarbeet be regarded as different form normal sucrose? Sucrose
is a straightforward chemical molecule. It is crystallisable and
has a defined chemical composition. In my view, one should not
label that product as being different from normal because it is
not different. There is no test that you can devise to demonstrate
from where it has come. A label that cannot be tested in some
way is of no use. In my view, if the product is indistinguishable
from the conventional product then labelling is unnecessary, but
if there is any difference at all - and here I am talking about
the gene product not the gene, which is exactly what has happened
in soya where there is a small amount of new protein but no DNA
present in a non-biologically active form - then there should
be a label. I used to think that labelling was not necessary but
I have changed my mind. If the consumer wants to know he should
know. The difficulty arises over the practicalities. As you know,
soya is moved round in hundreds of thousands of tonnes. The tests
for the presence of genetic modification are difficult and have
a low level of sensitivity. There has been a good deal of confusion
as to what should be done about such commodity crops. Last week
I went to Tesco and when I got home I found that the label on
a pizza contained a little asterisk at the bottom saying that
the soya had been genetically modified. Because the EU has not
yet reached agreement, Britain has moved ahead and provided labelling
for soya. Soya is present in 60 per cent of products in supermarkets.
I have some concerns about a label which appears on 60 per cent
of products in supermarkets when there is no alternative, except
if I go to Iceland. Who knows how long they can offer that alternative?
45. Clearly, it is very difficult to provide
the sort of label that can be readily understood by the consumer
and is more or less accurate?
(Professor Burke) Yes. This is a sophisticated
science which is quite hard to explain. The science carries social
overtones. The consumer has lost some confidence in the regulators,
particularly in the light of BSE. The consumer does not know how
seriously to take the case put forward by Greenpeace and the Natural
Law Party. The consumer finds it hard to weigh the level of risk.
We cannot put a number on it. But the consumer has the right to
choose. We find it very difficult to supply the information that
the consumer needs in a way that he can make use of it and so
make sensible choices. But people do make choices. In the week
following the BSE issue I stood beside a deep freeze in a supermarket.
People were saying, "It's half-price and the risk is very
low. I'm buying it." We make risk-benefit decisions all the
46. You said that it was very difficult
to carry out tests on genetically altered material. How do we
ensure that imported products have been assessed and labelled
(Professor Burke) I think that this will be very
difficult. There is a test for the gene which is sophisticated,
expensive and involves the use of radioactive material and similar
sophisticated biochemicals. It must have a lower limit of sensitivity.
I do not believe that we can be sure. For that reason the EU Commissioners
proposed a label which said "This may contain genetically
modified material". That pleased no one. The manufacturers
were placed in an impossible position. They had a label that they
could not defend. Greenpeace did not like it because it believed
that it was being fobbed off. What is the consumer to make of
a label which says that certain products may contain such material?
Particularly in the case of commodity crops I think that manufacturers
to be sure that they are not misleading their customers will label
all their soya products. The choice will arise either by a particular
supermarket offering an alternative or, as in organic produce,
by market segmentation within a supermarket chain. We are running
a rather interesting social experiment to see how deep the concerns
are. My general experience is that the British consumer is very
pragmatic. He or she is cautious particularly after BSE but is
not a hypochondriac.
47. This has virtually been answered. How
would you label?
(Professor Burke) I think that we must label.
We as regulators must not be seen to have things to hide. If the
public wants to know then it is reasonable to give them the information
in an open democratic society. The difficulties arise in how that
formulation works. The matter is subject to some difficulty. The
EU was unable to reach a decision in part because of the very
different social approaches of different members. Professor Beringer
referred to the differences between the US and Britain. There
are also big differences between Britain and Austria. The EU has
had difficulty in reaching a consensus. Quite recently the British
have put a proposal to the Commission, which I believe is very
sensible. I understand that that is to be discussed by Ministers
in the next few days. During its presidency the British are making
strenuous efforts to reach an EU-wide approval system for labelling.
Of course, it will be a compromise; there is no other way to proceed.
We live in a society that is different from that in America where
new technology is not treated with quite the same caution as here.
48. Do you advocate a symbol for genetically
modified labelling? You gave one example. I wonder what that means
to the general public.
(Professor Burke) You can always supply more information,
for example leaflets at checkout counters and so on. There has
even been talk about intelligent PCs which can be interrogated.
But that is for a very small percentage of the population who
want to take it that far. There was talkI am unsure of
its current statusof a stamp or kite mark.
49. But that is an example of voluntary
(Professor Burke) Yesbecause of the failure
of the EU to come to a conclusion and because supermarkets and
manufacturers were rightly concerned to be as open as they could.
50. Would you be in favour of a threshold
below which there should not be labelling, or do you think that
any detectable presence of GMOs should require labelling?
(Professor Burke) As in all these situations,
if any foreign substance is present one must have a lower limit.
That lower limit can be set either by a toxicological testthat
below that level there is no dangeror, more likely in this
case, below the limit of detection. I do not know the limits of
detection, but they are real.
51. And it will vary over time?
(Professor Burke) Indeed. The tests will probably
become more sensitive.
52. You spoke of the complication of carrying
out tests to see whether a product is genetically modified. How
many places are there in the country which can carry out such
tests? How long do they take? What would be the rough cost to
a food manufacturer?
(Professor Burke) You may have to ask the Clerk
to obtain some of that information. Any molecular biology research
laboratory would be able to carry out the tests. It was something
that I could have done myself when I was a little more involved.
But it involves the use of very expensive chemicals and takes
some timea day or two. No standard county surveillance
system is able to do that at the moment. I understand that specialist
companies are beginning to spring up to offer this as a service.
It will run basically rather like DNA fingerprinting. It will
be a specialist service offered at a cost.
53. We have dealt with labelling. Now we
come to segregation. As some people are in favour of segregation
of GM and non-GM food, do you think that that should be considered
as a possibility, with non-GM food being treated in a way similar
to organic foods? If consumers are given that choice, how do you
suggest it should be handled? Perhaps it is more a matter for
Sainsbury's than yourself.
(Professor Burke) Segregation is easy when the
supply lines are short, for example when the products come from
a local nursery. Zeneca went to a great deal of trouble to offer
a separate line of GM and non-GM tomato paste. It becomes very
difficult when a product has come a long way, though it is possible.
There is an economic cost. The segregation of rapeseed was costed
in Canada for about a year. It resulted in a 10 per cent increase.
But it was said that that could not be scaled up because it was
not possible to track the railway trucks. Everything had to be
moved by road and such a major crop as soya could not be moved
by road. Therefore, one runs into logistical problems of that
kind. I am sure that it is possible but it comes down to cost.
North America is going GM very quickly. The estimate for this
summer is 40 per cent. I think that it will go to 100 per cent
because of the advantages to the producer. American farmers are
very independent people who make a shrewd decision as to what
will give them the best income. This will give them more money
and they will do it. Segregation can really take place only on
the basis of countries, for example by Brazil or Argentina shipping
the material separately, but terrible problems arise when one
comes to the processing industry. Sixty per cent of the products
in supermarkets cannot be segregated. I suppose that in retrospect
soya flour from non-GM sources could have been offered for a few
years, but I do not believe that it was ever practical to offer
this particular product with and without GM soya. The costs
would have been beyond what people were prepared to pay.
54. But that is what Iceland does, is it
(Professor Burke) Iceland does it for its own
label products. It does it by accessing soya from two particular
countries. That is fine; that is how the market works. It is a
very interesting experiment. If there is such an advantage to
the farmer as the North American experience suggests the price
cannot remain the same. Iceland will therefore have to pay more
to source that material and that will probably have to be passed
on to the consumer. That is another very interesting experiment.
How much more are people prepared to pay? I think that we should
run these experiments. It is the only way in which we can find
55. I know that your former committee is
not interested primarily in the environment. Is it conceivable
that GM crops can have a net beneficial effect on the environment?
(Professor Burke) I had prior notice of this question
and thought about it a bit. I offer two possibilities. The first
is that if herbicide usage falls or simplifiesthat is,
people use better characterised herbicidesas long as we
control what happens to hedgerows, the edges of lanes and so forth,
then less herbicide is in general a good thing. Secondly, if yields
rise we may begin to take out of farming less productive land,
for example land at the edge of the sea coast. The sandlings of
north Suffolk were ploughed up during the war. It is not very
good soil. It would make a lot of sense to let it revert and devote
a strip of land just in from the coast to insects and birds. Whether
that will happen I do not know. One knows the pressures on farmers
to optimise their income.
56. Monsanto claim that huge quantities
of insecticide do not now need to be used on GM crops in the United
States which previously had to be used. Do you have any reason
to doubt those claims?
(Professor Burke) No. I am just not expert to
assess it. I think that it will be very interesting to watch it.
57. Do the delays apparently inherent in
the EC regulatory system indicate an arbitrary and alarming inability
to reach rational decisions within a sensible time frame or an
admirable degree of caution and responsibility which contrasts
favourably with regulatory practices in North America?
(Professor Burke) We are making very heavy weather
of it. We are seriously in danger of losing competitive advantage
in world agriculture. That is not a trivial problem. The agro-food
world is now controlled by about five companies of whom only one
is British. The WTO also has an impact on what we do. I hope that
this committee will be able to help the tide that is necessary
to get faster decisions out of the EU. A personal view is that
the people who are making the decisions are not paying the costs
of the delays in implementation. Whatever the decisions may be,
delay costs money. Having said that, the US has de-restricted
very substantially. I am a little more cautious than Professor
Beringer about the risks involved. I think that we need to watch
it. But if the Americans want to run the experiment let them run
it. The US is moving very assertively in this field. It has taken
a number of steps to free up the regulatory process not only in
the areas of environmental safety and food safety but in the way
it clears patents. Recently I heard that the Patent Office in
the US was rewarded on the basis of the number of patents approved,
not the number of patents scanned. That is a very positive move
if one wishes to be a dominant trading force in the next century,
as I think the US does. We must respond rather more rapidly than
we have so far.
Chairman] Thank you
very much for your most expert and valuable evidence.