A collective sigh of relief from consumer associations and environmentalists was almost audible across Europe on Wednesday when plans to enforce stricter labelling of genetically modified foods were agreed by members of the European Parliament making Europe's new rules some of the toughest, if not the toughest, in the world. Ironically, the new rules could, claims the European Commission, pave the way to wider consumer acceptance of genetically modified materials.
Under current EU rules, only food with more than 1 per cent of GM material has to be labelled. The new proposals, which still have to be agreed by EU environment ministers before becoming law, would alter the threshold to 0.5 per cent for authorised GM material. It will require the traceability of GMOs throughout the chain from farm to table and provide consumers with information by labelling all food and feed consisting of, containing or produced from a GMO. Consequently, even if genetically altered material cannot be identified in tests because it has been destroyed through processing, as in the case of oils and sugars, it must be labelled as produced from a GMO.
Food processors and a number of Member State governments who maintained that the European commission's proposal to label food containing such purified derivatives, such as oils and starches, from GM crops was totally unworkable because it relied on a paper trail and consequently open to fraud, will be very disappointed by the vote on Wednesday.
In a speech earlier this week David Byrne, European commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection rejected this argument claiming, 'a great number of regulatory requirements and legal rights are enforced without any recourse to physical checks. I have yet to meet a business operator who would admit that he does not know the origin of the ingredients he or she is using.'
Environmental groups, although generally happy with the outcome on Wednesday, were disappointed that the parliament failed to agree on extra measures demanded by some MEPs to label milk, meat and eggs from animals reared on genetically modified feeds. In contrast, this will no doubt please Byrne who was quoted as saying in an earlier statement this week that the Commission proposal, that also covers GM feed, should not be extended to 'products such as milk, eggs and meat from animals fed on GM feed because this would radically depart from existing food legislation concerning animal products.'
Hopes are high at the European Commission that the new stricter labelling could go some way to assuaging consumer fears on biotechnology and 'frankenfoods'. But the food industry, in favour of a GM-free labelling option, claims that the proposed rules would set them back by many years.
Should the proposal be cleared by environment ministers of the Member States it is certain that the US will be quick to react. The US government, that regards genetic engineering as normal in agriculture, has already threatened to contest any restrictive new EU rules in the World Trade Organisation as a technical barrier to trade. Politicians and technocrats on both side of the Atlantic will be charged with the unenviable task of finding a channel of trade that is acceptable to both sides. But Europe should be content with the new legislation. Politicians and legislators have listened to the voice of the European consumer and reacted accordingly. They resisted pressure from the food industry and certain Member States to 'soften' the legislation and have acted on behalf of the European citizen.