US opposes European plan for labeling (2/7/2003)

U.S. opposes European plan for labeling genetically altered food
By Constant Brand Associated Press
updated: 07/01/2003 09:11 PM

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union officials urged lawmakers Tuesday to approve regulations on genetically modified foods that could end an EU ban on new biotech products. But the EU would keep labels that the United States says could make the foods impossible to sell. Washington remains unhappy with the labeling proposals, saying that they will be costly for U.S. exporters and that they are unnecessary, because the foods present no health risks.
full article:
Europe ready to open the door to labelled GM foods
Law change may leave Washington free to argue that EU is restricting trade
Ian Black in Strasbourg
The Guardian , Wednesday July 2, 2003

A vote in the European parliament today could lead to all genetically modified products being labelled as such, paving the way for the EU to lift its moratorium on the introduction of new biotech foods.

The rule could enter into force by the autumn. But while it will give Europeans a clear choice whether to accept GM food, it is unlikely to end the bitter rift the issue has caused between the EU and the US.

Europe's passionate GM debate has become interwoven with wider transatlantic tensions, worsened when the US brought a case against the EU in the World Trade Organisation in May.

Last week President George Bush raised the stakes further by publicly accusing Europe of contributing to famine in Africa, even though it gives seven times more aid than the US to the poorest, sub-Saharan part of the continent. 

Retaliation came yesterday from Pat Cox, the Irish president of the parliament. 

"I reject completely linking the [GM] debate to famine in Africa," he said. "We don't need to be lectured."

Debating a compromise package in Strasbourg, MEPs called for any foodstuff containing more than 0.9% of GM products to be clearly labelled. Green groups such as Friends of the Earth want stricter limits. 

"The lower the threshold is set, the higher the margin for error in testing, the less reliable the results and the harder the legislation to enforce to the benefit of genuine consumer choice," a briefing note by the UK food standards agency says.

David Byrne, the EU consumer affairs commissioner, calling for a speedy end to the moratorium, said: "There will be some who will never be satisfied, who say no to GMO."

The danger of the EU's intended position is that in the absence of a proved risk to human health the US will argue that labelling is a disguised form of trade protection.

A central element of the proposed law gives national governments the power to draw up rules for "coexistence" between GM and conventional crops to prevent contamination by drifting pollen.  Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are already drafting their own rules. With differing national standards, the commission is likely to have to adjudicate.

And with French scientists having reported last month that seed from GM sugar beet had been found in wild plants a mile away, the planting of GM crops could remain severely restricted.

Feeling runs especially high in France, where the campaigner Jose Bove is in prison for destroying GM crops.

Many consumers whose confidence in food safety was battered by BSE remain deeply sceptical, but the industry insists that GM foods make for cheaper and greener farming.

Opinion polls show that 70% of the European public do not want GM food and 94% want to be able to choose whether or not they eat it.

Those in the middle ground want to give people an informed choice.

"We live in an imperfect world and the use of thresholds reflects that reality," said David Bowe, environment spokesman for British Labour MEPs. 

"In all labelling regimes there is a cut-off point born of the practical and scientific reality, that it's the best we can do with the science we've got. One of the ingredients in your pizza might be salami sausage, but not every constituent ingredient of that sausage will appear on the pizza box label." 

Green groups insist that consumers should have greater protection. "The public has a fundamental right to eat GM-free food," Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth Europe said.

"MEPs must also back measures to protect organic and conventional farmers from GMO contamination."

The new system will require companies growing, importing and processing GM food to be able to trace the source of the products they are using, so that even products which no longer contain altered DNA can be labelled as GM-derived.

Biotechnology firms hope that once the rules are approved the market will open up to products which are available in the US.

All sides feel tremendous pressure from Washington. "There is a strong sense that the US is pushing too hard and too fast to serve narrow commercial interests," the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Davies said. 

"There are no certain gains to be made from growing GM crops in Europe, and, while the dangers may be exaggerated there are real fears that we risk making mistakes that could lead to unforeseen consequences for our environment. 

"The customer knows best, and shoppers must have the information so that they can decide for themselves what products to buy.

"If this slows the development of GM products while more research is carried out, that may be no bad thing."

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