Shops 'unlikely to stock GM food' (16/7/2003)

Steven Morris
The Guardian, Wednesday July 16, 2003

Supermarket bosses will today tell the environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, that there is little prospect of them stocking own brand genetically modified foods in the foreseeable future.

They will say there has been hardly any shift in the attitudes of shoppers since consumer power forced stores to remove GM products from their shelves in the late 90s. 

Ms Beckett has invited the chief executives of Safeway, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's and the trade association the British Retail Consortium to a meeting as part of the government-led debate on GM food. 

A spokeswoman at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: "The idea is that Ms Beckett will listen to them and hear their views on GM products which will feed into the other research going on over the summer." 

Supermarket bosses tend not to give their own views on GM food, but say they will not fill their shelves with it simply because it goes against customers' wishes. 

Richard Ali, director of food policy at the British Retail Consortium, said: "Our position remains unchanged. We are neutral on GM technology. But we provide what customers demand and they do not want GM food." 

Mr Ali said a shift would probably come only if it was proved that GM products had tangible benefits for consumers - for example, extra vitamin content. 

The communications director for Safeway, Kevin Hawkins, said: "I think it's very difficult to see what will move public opinion. We have certainly seen no change in what people think about GM." 

Kate O'Sullivan of Sainsbury's said: "Customers have made it clear they do not want GM ingredients." 

Tesco and Asda also said they had seen no radical change in public attitude. 

A Mori poll published this month seemed to show the firm opposition to GM food. Only one in seven of those surveyed were in favour of GM food, with 46% opposed. However, the poll did indicate a large rise in the number undecided - 33% compared with 16% five years ago. Mori believes the increasing indecision could be put down to the complexity of the issue and the polarised nature of the debate. 

An important feature of the poll, according to Mori, was that opposition is largely irrespective of age and income. However, women are more opposed than men - 51% against 40% - and opposition is greatest in rural areas. 

The attitude of supermarket bosses echoes that in a report on GM published last week by the Cabinet Office's strategy unit. It said retailers would be "reluctant to risk their reputation" by abandoning their no GM policies and added: "A minority demand for GM would not be enough to induce supermarkets to stock it."

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