Labelling rules for GM foods rejected by Member States

European Commission proposals on labelling of foods containing genetically modified (GM) soya or maize were rejected by the EC Standing Committee on Food Safety in January. However, the proposals will be implemented by the Commission unless the Council of Ministers unanimously rejects or amends them within three months.

EC policy on the labelling of GM foods remains confused, despite dramatic growth in the proportion of staple food crops grown from GM seed worldwide. This year, GM soya is expected to account for 35% of the US market - the main exporter to the EC - up from 16% in 1997.

The Commission's proposals, which appeared in a draft Regulation last December, were criticised by environmental and consumer groups because most products derived from GM soya or maize would have escaped labelling. Only products containing traces of DNA or protein resulting from genetic modification would have required labelling. Products such as soya oil and margarine and those containing additives such as soya lecithin, flavourings and extraction solvents would not have needed labels (ENDS Report 275, pp 46-47 ).

The draft Regulation only applies to products derived from Monsanto's GM soya and Novartis' GM maize, which do not fall under the separate Novel Foods Regulation because they were approved prior to its adoption. However, the proposals are seen as a precedent for general labelling provisions under the Novel Foods Regulation which have yet to be presented by the Commission.

Some Member States argued in the Committee that testing for modified DNA is expensive and ineffective and that testing for modified protein alone is sufficient. Others opposed testing altogether, suggesting that the Commission should draw up a comprehensive list of products requiring labelling. Food producers argue that the use of DNA tests would mean that too many foods were labelled as containing GMOs.

Greenpeace welcomed the Committee's decision, claiming that the Commission's proposals would not apply to 95% of products which could be derived from GM soya or maize. Only those where the modified DNA or proteins could be traced with current analysis methods would have to be labelled. This would not include major supermarket items such as soya oil, margarine and chocolate.

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