European ministers have reached a political agreement on genetically modified foods and feed, paving the way towards some of the toughest legislation on GMOs in the world. Although a supporter of GM labelling, the European food industry has clearly voiced its concerns this week condemning the agreed labelling rules as 'impractical and unenforceable'.
Already today, retailers have to label a food consisting of or containing GMOs - this also includes food produced from GMOs if traces of DNA or protein from the genetic modification is detectable in the final product (such as flour produced from genetically modified maize). The labelling provisions do not cover some foods or food ingredients, such as highly refined soya or maize oil produced from GM-soya or GM-maize.
In a bid to improve consumer choice, the effect of the new agreement is to extend the current labelling requirements to also cover such food (soya or maize oil produced from GM-soya or GM-maize) and food ingredients produced from GMOs (biscuits with maize oil produced from GM-maize). But the food industry remains highly critical of this new area of labelling.
"The European food industry notes that the EU Agriculture Ministers reached a compromise on the authorisation procedure for new GM food and feed.
However the food and drink manufacturing industry strongly regrets that the Member States did not take into consideration its concerns on the practical implications of the agreed labelling rules, not only for food operators but also for enforcement authorities," said Raymond Destin, director general of the CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries in the EU).
The CIAA warns that in the absence of DNA/modified protein in the final product, the implementation of the new rules will have to be based on paper trails and not on analytical tests as it is currently the case. "As in some cases, GM-material cannot be distinguished from non-GM material (for instance in the case of highly refined oils or starch hydrolysates), this system would lead to unfair competition and fraud," the group said in a statement this week.
In addition, the CIAA added: "On the one hand, certain food ingredients containing GM-material below a threshold for adventitious presence will not have to be labelled and on the other hand, certain GM-derived products not containing GM-material would have to be labelled. This will cause confusion in the perception of the consumers."
For the CIAA, only a labelling system based on detectability can offer consumers real choice.
In contrast, David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, has welcomed aspects of the political agreement.
"This new law further ensures consumer choice through labelling of GMO derived food and also provides the farmer with information. I feel strongly that our citizens need to be able to make this choice," he said this week.
However, Byrne readily criticised the 'scaremongering' surrounding GMOs. "I deplore scaremongering about GMOs: every GMO authorised in the EU has been evaluated for its safety by independent scientists and there are no known adverse effects on human health from eating GMOs," he stated.
The Regulation as agreed last week establishes an EU system to regulate the placing on the market and labelling of food and feed products derived from GMOs and it paves the way for the adoption of the traceability and labelling proposal in the Environment Council in December.
The draft law will add to the current rules for the labelling of all foods produced from GMOs, irrespective of whether there is DNA or protein of GM origin in the final product and all genetically modified feed.
Under current legislation, the presence of GM material in conventional food does not have to be labelled if it is below one per cent and if it can be shown to be adventitious and technically unavoidable. The Council agreed last week on a threshold of no higher than 0.9 per cent. Under current legislation, there is no tolerance threshold for the adventitious presence of GM material in food or feed which has not been authorised. The Commission had proposed a one per cent threshold for the adventitious or technically unavoidable presence of such GM material, provided that the GM material has received a favourable EU scientific risk assessment and that the manufacturer can demonstrate that its presence was technically unavoidable. Above this threshold the product will not be allowed on the market.
The Council decided to set the threshold at 0.5 per cent and to limit its application to three years however the commission can review the situation and make a proposal for its extension if appropriate.
Turning to GM feed, the agreement introduces for the first time strict labelling requirements of GM-feed along the same principle as for GM food. Currently, no labelling requirements are in place for feed produced from GMOs and the new proposal will require the labelling of, for example, GM-soy meal and any compound feed that includes in its composition the GM-soya meal. It will also require labelling of corn gluten feed produced from GM maize.
The new legislation is clearly a victory for consumer groups but what will be the impact on the food industry? The CIAA supports the recent call for a lifting of the de facto moratorium on GM research, as a means to boost innovation and provide consumers with a broad range of new products. However, it warns, due to the "impractical aspect of the new labelling rules, food companies and ultimately consumers might not be able to really benefit from it".