Non-GMO labels are on the rise in Europe – but why?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

"Our consumer data showed that out of the continental European countries surveyed, Germans are the most likely to never buy GM food followed closely by Italy and France," said Chris Brockman.
"Our consumer data showed that out of the continental European countries surveyed, Germans are the most likely to never buy GM food followed closely by Italy and France," said Chris Brockman.

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Non-GMO labels are on the rise in European countries – but unlike the US, EU legislation requires all food containing above trace levels of GM to be labelled. So is there even a need for GMO-free?

Any product manufactured in the EU that contains more than 0.9% GM material must be labelled as such​.

Despite this, demand for GM-free food – containing no more than 0.1% GM - is growing. So far this year, GMO-free claims have been made for 3.5% of new product launches in Germany, 2.4% in the UK and 4.7% in Italy.

While these figures seem small they are rising. In Germany, one fifth of every new egg or egg product launched is labelled ‘Ohne Gentechnik’ ​- marking a 12% increase in only two years. It’s not a particularly niche consumer base either - discount retailers Aldi and Rewe recently demanded that eggs and poultry from their suppliers was non-GMO.

But why the need for non-GMO label at all if manufacturers have a legal requirement to be transparent about GM content?

Alexander Hissting, managing director of the German Association of GM-free Food (Verband Lebensmittel ohne Gentechnik​) told FoodNavigator: “The necessity comes … from the loopholes in the current EU labelling regime for GM food and feed. Animal products like meat, milk and eggs do not have to be labelled as GM, even if the animals have been fed on a GM diet.”

Mintel analyst Katya Witham confirmed that it is mostly animal-derived products that are sought after.

“In Germany, consumer concern over genetically modified foods [is] forcing the meat, dairy and egg industries to offer products derived from non-GMO feed,” ​she said.

Will demand grow with the ‘patchwork system’?

In January this year, following a deadlock of many years, the EU parliament gave national governments the choice of opting out of GM cultivation at either a national or regional level.

But campaigners have said that this ‘opt in, opt out’ option could create a patchwork of GM countries or regions sitting alongside non-GM ones, thus opening the doors to unbridled cross pollination.

Germany’s Bavarian environment minister, Ulrike Scharf, said: “The flight of pollen does not stop at state borders." 

This concern was echoed by Hissting: “If the government decides on the opt out possibility at a state level [rather than a national level], the risk of contamination for the Non-GMO agriculture and food processing would increase considerably."

He added: “Contamination by GM pollen is not the only – and probably not even the biggest – risk of contamination. Other factors like shared machinery for harvest and transport, co-mingling during storage and processing have to be considered.”

There are similar concerns in other EU member states. Trevor Mansfield from the UK’s Soil Association told FoodNavigator that the English government was keen to go ahead with GM cultivation but the Scottish and Welsh parliaments had said no.

But even if cross-pollination increases, advanced testing methods can provide an accurate reading of 0.1% to 0.9% GM content, thus guaranteeing that consumers know what they are eating?

It depends, said research & development manager at Leatherhead Dr Angus Knight.

“The [testing] methods have been shown to be reproducible and repeatable [accurate and precise] in ring trials. However, processed food is a heterogeneous matrix and standards do not exist for each and every food, so the accuracy of measurement cannot be determined in strict analytical terms.” 

In any case, Mintel analyst Chris Brockman said that the label was reassuring to consumers. “It [offers] consumers greater transparency and assurances over safety,” ​he said.

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