Brussels, 19 Apr 2004
New EU rules on the labelling and tracing of genetically modified (GM) foods came into effect on 18 April. The rules, described by the European Commission as the toughest GM food regulations anywhere in the world, require food and animal feed to be labelled if they contain at least 0.9 percent of GM ingredients.
Producers and buyers must also store all data about the origin, composition and sale of GM products for a five-year period. The directives, however, do not require labelling for the meat, milk or eggs of animals reared on GM. The measures will apply to the 16 types of GM product currently marketed inside the EU, and to the nine that are awaiting approval.
Consumer rights and environmental groups have welcomed the measures as a chance for consumers to express their opposition to GM foods. Europe's biotechnology industry umbrella group, EuropaBio, was also positive about the rules, stating these were 'the world's first system for consumer choice'. The organisation also expressed hope that the implementation would clear the way for the lifting of the EU's five-year de facto moratorium on approving new genetically engineered products. 'We are waiting impatiently for the process of approving GM foods based on transparent, scientific analysis to resume' said a EuropaBio spokesperson.
In 1999, the import and cultivation of GM products in the EU was halted in response to opposition from Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg, later joined by Austria and Belgium.
The new law is not expected to have a big impact in the short term, as many consumers remain resistant to biotech foods. Indeed a Commission survey found that 70.9 percent of European shoppers are hostile to foods containing GM ingredients. Europe's biggest retailer, the French Carrefour Group, said its own research shows that figure to be over 75 percent.
'In the interest of commercial success, we must respect consumer preference,' said François Perroud, spokesman for the Swiss food giant Nestle, which uses approved genetically engineered ingredients 'without any hesitation' in the US and elsewhere, but keeps them out of Europe.
Previously, all food containing more than one percent of GMOs had to be labelled, but not if the food was so processed that it was impossible to detect GMOs in the final product. Furthermore, animal fodder was excluded from any labelling. The new rules include vegetable oils and other highly refined products, such as soy lecithin, where the genetically modified DNA or resulting protein is no longer present or detectable in the final product.
The animal feed sector, currently one of the main markets for GM soy beans and maize in the EU, is the most likely to feel the impact of the changes, as the feed itself will have to be labelled under the new rules.
Concerning meat and dairy products from animals fed on GM feed, the EU has decided not to label them as there is no scientific proof that the altered material can make its way from the animal's stomach to the end product. However, opponents are pushing for even tougher rules that would require labels on any meat or dairy product that comes from animals fed on genetically modified feed.
The United States, which has the world's biggest biotech industry, is seeking to end the EU's de facto moratorium through the World Trade Organisation, attacking the new labelling rules as protectionism in disguise. The US is particularly worried because much of the world looks to Europe for leadership in matters of food security. Since Europe's initial labelling regime was imposed five years ago, some three-dozen countries have followed suit.
In a long-awaited decision, EU agriculture ministers are to decide whether or not to allow the import of a type of GM sweetcorn, Bt-11, during a meeting at the end of April. The consumer safeguards provided by the new rules could make it easier for ministers to approve the product, paving the way for the authorisation of other GM imports. It is believed, however, that the ministers will refer the problematic issue back to the European Commission, which openly supports granting new authorisations in order to encourage the GM industry in Europe.
According to the European Confederation of Food and Drink Industries (CIAA), however, GM products will continue to arouse deep consumer suspicion. 'A considerable number of consumers are against buying GM-derived foods. The food and drink sector respects this feeling and consumers should not expect much to change [under the new rules],' the organisation said. To read about the Commission's activities in the area of GM food and feed, please visit: http://europa.eu.int/comm/food/food/biot echnology/gmfood/index_en.htm
To read EuropaBio's 'practical guide for consumers and the food chain', please visit: http://www.europabio.org/upload/document s/140404/gm_labelling_guide_eng.PDF