Europe's attempts to solve a transatlantic row over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by tough food labelling rules have yet to bear fruit, leaving the 15-nation bloc vulnerable to legal challenge, officials say.
With policy makers acutely aware of balancing public concerns over new varieties of gene-spliced crops with their potential benefits, the European Commission plans compulsory labels for all food products made from them.
But public opinion in Europe, bruised by the mad cow and dioxin scandals, has proved sceptical to GMOs, often characterised in the press as "Frankenstein foods".
The strict measures have raised problems with U.S. farmers and exporters, who believe them to be unworkable. But they may be able to live with them if -- as the Commission wants -- they lead to the swift lifting of a three-year-old de facto ban on approvals of new GM varieties in Europe.
Under new traceability proposals, any food product derived from a GM crop must be labelled as such, even if the genetic material is removed during the manufacturing process -- as is the case with some vegetable oils.
The laws will require manufacturers to provide certificates of GM content at each stage of the production process, an obligation that U.S. farmers say will add to costs and be an administrative burden open to mistakes and fraud.
They would prefer a system based on the testing for GM content of the final product placed on the market.
ATTEMPT TO END APPROVALS BAN
The Commission has been forced to take a tough line to appease a hard core of six EU countries, led by France, which have said they would not authorise any new GM crops until the laws were in place.A total of 13 GM varieties have been in regulatory limbo since 1998, leaving companies like Monsanto and Novartis waiting for years to know whether their new strains of modified maize, soy and cotton can be sold in the EU.
Commission president Romano Prodi has raised fears that Europe could suffer economically by falling behind in the biotech race and that the anti-GM lobby has been given too free a hand in shaping consumer opinion.
EU food safety Commissioner David Byrne has said more must be done to explain the issues to the public.
"Very often the debate on GMOs has generated more heat than light. We must ensure, as political leaders, that unbiased facts on biotechnology are placed before our citizens to see and understand," he said in a recent speech.
The Commission has now proposed that approvals restart immediately, even though the new labelling laws have not yet been adopted -- a process that could take another two years.
It suggested last month that the EU should license new GMOs as long as their makers agreed to be bound by the new rules.
Europe's biotech industry said it welcomed the Commission's efforts to bring the de facto moratorium to a swift end.
"We especially applaud the efforts and leadership of the European Commission in ensuring that the regulatory process on GM plants comes back on track," said Hugo Schepens, Secretary General of the industry lobby EuropaBio.
"We are keen to ensure that the labelling and traceability laws meet member state requirements and consumer demands while recognising the realities of agricultural production."
"With the proven health and environmental safety track record of such crops, the continuation of the de facto moratorium is indefensible," Schepens added.
MEMBER STATES STICK TO THEIR GUNS
However, it appears that the hard core of member states are sticking to their guns, and demanding the legislation be fully in place on the statute books before any new approvals could be made.At a meeting of EU environment ministers in Luxembourg last month, only Spain, the Netherlands and Britain showed any willingness to accept the Commission's idea.
"It isn't possible to start discussing a possible end to the moratorium as long as there is no operational system on traceability and labelling, and that is some way off," the French Environment Minister Yves Cochet told the meeting.
Some countries, such as France and Luxembourg, are also hinting they may insist on additional laws covering the environmental liability of GMOs -- leading to extra delays.
This has left the Commission with a dilemma, as it believes the blocking of new GM strains, which have been scientifically tested, cannot be justified under international law.
It fears a legal suit from the biotech firms which, it believes, could force it to overrule national governments and approve the GM crops for use anywhere in the EU.
"This is problematic and I don't know how to solve it," EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom told the ministers. "We are in an illegal situation."Wallstrom also said the EU may be open to a complaint from the United States at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
And with biotech giant Monsanto planning to commercialise the first ever genetically modified wheat in 2003, the pressure on EU governments to resolve the issue can only increase.