Brussels rejects GMO segregation but supports mandatory labelling

The European Commission has rejected the principle that foods, seeds and animal feeds containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be segregated throughout their production chain in order to allow them to be labelled as "containing" or "not containing" GMOs. But it has agreed that products which cannot be guaranteed to be GMO-free will have to bear labels stating that they "contain" or "may contain" GMOs, and criteria for testing products to detect GMOs will be drawn up to help avoid widespread use of the "may contain" label.

The Commission intends to issue proposals in the autumn to revise the 1990 EC Directive on deliberate release of GMOs. An indication of what these may stipulate on labelling came in April, when the Commission amended Annex III of the Directive to require new genetically modified products to carry labels indicating that they "contain", or "may contain", GMOs (ENDS Report 267, pp 38-39 ). In effect, this allows companies to comply with the Directive without having to segregate modified products from conventional ones.

Since then, the Commissioners have been at loggerheads over whether to require growers and distributors of GM products to segregate them from conventional varieties. Environmental and consumer groups, as well as some retail organisations, have been pressing strongly for segregation to allow consumers to choose whether to buy GMO products.

However, Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler - a strong advocate of segregation - failed to persuade US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to accept the principle because of the threat the USA believes it would pose to agricultural exports worth £4-5 billion a year (ENDS Report 269, p 29 ). US companies urged President Bill Clinton to pursue World Trade Organisation sanctions against the EC if it made segregation necessary.

The policy statement, or "orientation", issued by the Commission in July shows a compromise has been reached in Brussels.

The Commission will adopt an approach which it believes to be in accordance with the EC's international obligations. It will "not impose mandatory segregation of production, transport and distribution lines on operators but only proportionate labelling requirements." Mandatory labelling will be required for foods known to be of GMO origin, or where GM material cannot be excluded. Voluntary labelling will be permitted for foods certified as free of GMOs.

However, the Commission said that labelling should give consumers "clear, honest and neutral information about the GMO origin of products, facilitating choice for consumers." Labels should cover as many products as possible "where reliable scientific tests exist to prove a GMO origin." Verification techniques are "likely to develop rapidly over the next few years." Analytical criteria will be drawn up by its scientific committees.

To avoid widespread use of the "may contain" label, the "contains" label will have to be used "whenever there is either documentary/label evidence, or testing has shown the presence of GMO material." Testing for the presence of GMOs in bulk consignments, the statement adds, is "relatively easy".

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