Much of Britain’s food industry is likely to find itself obliged by supermarket customers to conform to the new standard on non-GM food developed by the British Retail Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation. But greater certainty and hopes it will mean lower inspection costs and increased consumer confidence mean the new guidelines should be welcome, says Chris Lyddon.

The new standard flows from British consumers’ apparently violent aversion to the idea of buying genetically modified products, despite the success of a clearly labelled GM tomato paste launched in British supermarkets as an experiment in 1996. Legislators are piling on the pressure for certainty about whether GM material is in food products or not, and manufacturers and retailers need to be able to back up “non-GM” claims.

Called the “Technical standard for the supply of non-genetically modified food ingredients and product,” it is the result of two years of consultation and evolution by the British Retail Consortium for the retailers and the Food and Drink Federation for the processors to create a standard based on the best industry practice.

One major aim is to make life simpler for the industry. “We hope it will break through the current fog, especially as the regulations themselves are pretty foggy,” FDF director of communications Martin Paterson told “We’re hoping it will be widely adopted, even outside the UK. It’s a deeply worked out document.”

It outlines what’s needed to source identity preserved non-GM soya and maize, including clear documentation all along the supply chain and audit trails to identify how ingredients have travelled through the chain. It goes into cleaning and inspection of equipment at every stage and calls for strict segregation of GM and non-GM commodities in transport and storage.

At this point the stress is on avoiding GM products. “We know consumers don’t want GM right now, so we are making sure they can avoid it,” BRC executive John Morris told “We are providing a set of rules stretching from seed suppliers to final consumer. Once a product is sold in Tesco‘s or Sainsbury’s name they are responsible for it.”

The standard is designed to be consistent with the approach of the latest EU legislation, which sets a 1% threshold for adventitious contamination, as long as processors can satisfy the authorities they’ve taken reasonable steps to avoid GM material. Said John Morris; “We’re working towards zero, but to get zero is not feasible for commodity crops. I must stress that this is not a safety issue. This is a choice issue.”

FDF director general Sylvia Jay said the standard was good news for the industry and consumers. “The manufacturing industry now has a new tool, a best practice standard,” she said. But the Federation wasn’t coming down on either side. “FDF is neither for, nor against, genetic modification in food production in general,” she said, repeating the point that this was a consumer choice, not a health, issue. “At FDF we’re concerned about consumer concerns like the retailers have to be. The consumers provide our livelihoods.”

BRC director general Bill Moyes said the retailers had got a very clear message from consumers that they didn’t want to be forced to buy GM products. ”

“Retailers have to listen to their customers. If they don’t they go out of business.” – BRC director general Bill Moyes

Retailers have to listen to their customers. If they don’t they go out of business.” They’d started as a reaction to that. “Members’ experience in obtaining non-GM material indicated that it could be done. The objective was to develop a robust system that gave confidence that food was non-GM.”

The standard was drawn up by a working group which looked at current identity-preserved systems and drew the best practice from all of them. It covers the whole chain from the seed supplier to the ingredient or commodity user. “It’s better than farm to fork. It goes further than that. It gives the consumer confidence,” said John Morris.

Michael Hunt of the FDF stressed that the new standard was building on existing best practice. “We don’t want to give the impression that suddenly the industry will be doing something it wasn’t doing yesterday,” he said. “There are lots of systems, but now everyone will be able to point to the same publicly available standard.”

One hope for the new standard is that it will save costs. Procedures can be audited against the standard and it is hoped that wide acceptance of the standard will mean reduced levels of inspection. The standards application will vary. “If I’m sourcing a crop from an area where it’s illegal to grow GM and there’s a good record of that law being followed, I won’t necessarily have to follow all the steps,” Hunt said. “That’s what I mean by risk analysis.”

It does not include an administrative procedure for enforcing the standard. There is, however, a requirement that bodies which want to audit against the standard have accreditation either to the European standard EN45011 or the international equivalent ISO 65.

The standard’s writers feel it can allow smaller companies, with restricted resources to source and supply non-GM commodities and ingredients.

Although it is based on the supply of maize and soya, the standard is designed to provide a framework that can be applied to other GM crops as they become available. “This is a living document,” Hunt said.

The standard has separate sections for each link in the chain covering:

  • Seed merchant
  • Grower
  • Grain merchant
  • Commodity agent
  • Commodity processor
  • Ingredient user

Each has a separate section of the standard. “It’s quite clear which bit applies to me,” said the FDF’s Michael Hunt.

The BRC/FDF standard does not cover animal feed. It refers to the UKASTA (United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association), “Processed Vegetable Materials and Imported Whole Combinable Crops (A Feed Materials Assurance Scheme Standard).

The new standard has no legal standing, but widespread adoption is likely to make conforming to it unavoidable for much of the food industry. “It’s not in any regulation, but if you use it in your supply contract then it’s compulsory,” said FDF’s Martin Paterson. The more widely the standard is adopted the greater will be the benefits say the two trade groups.

Copies of the standard are available from the Stationery Office

By Chris Lyddon, correspondent

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

World Market For GM-Food Testing

Handbook on the Labelling of Genetically Modified Foods, Ingredients and Additives