Traceability and labelling are two of the hottest topics in agribusiness today. Just as contentious is the genetic modification of crops and food. If you combine the two, it is nearly impossible to achieve international consensus, and Steve Clapp reports on a strong reaction from the US to the EU’s new legislation in this area.

As seen in the August 2001 issue of Food Traceability Report (

U.S. government and food industry officials have reacted angrily to the European Commission’s long-awaited legislation on traceability and labeling of bioengineered food and feed.

The proposal “extends far beyond health protections for consumers and in fact creates onerous and impractical regulatory barriers,” said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. “These trade and business obstacles are particularly unfortunate given the strong interest of the developing world in tapping biotechnology to improve nutrition, lower food costs and reduce reliance on pesticides.”

Zoellick stopped short of threatening to challenge the legislation in the World Trade Organization. However, industry analysts are already proposing a WTO case claiming billions of dollars in damages.

The proposed regulations, which the EC approved July 25, are expected to be adopted, with possible modifications, by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers and take effect by the end of 2003. Included under the regulation would be highly processed corn and soybean oils, which are currently exempt because they cannot be tested for novel DNA or proteins (see chart on Page 13).

A Grocery Manufacturers of America spokeswoman said the legislation failed to address any of the concerns 19 U.S. food trade associations expressed in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in May (available to subscribers at

“We are disappointed that the commission has moved forward with proposals that U.S. and EU business alike believe is technically unworkable and economically prohibitive,” Mari Stull, GMA’s director of international regulatory policy, told FTR. The proposals would raise significant trade barriers and “put a tremendous strain on the otherwise excellent EU-U.S. trading relationship,” she added.

Charging that the legislation is inconsistent with the EU’s obligations under WTO agreements, Stull said the measure would create “a costly, discriminatory and likely prohibitive set of requirements for trade in products of biotechnology without the identification of any health or safety risk to justify such measures.”

Spokesmen for the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association also expressed opposition to the legislation.

European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy reportedly led opposition to the proposal during heated commission debate.

“EU trade officials fear that the legislation could seriously compromise trade relations with the U.S”

EU trade officials fear that the legislation could seriously compromise trade relations with the U.S.

The traceability provisions would require records of genetic transformation events to be kept throughout the production process. The rule includes a 1% threshold for adventitious presence of bioengineered materials in non-biotech commodities. Producers must be able to show that the traces were “technically unavoidable,” and the bioengineered material must have been approved by the EU or an outside country for use in food.

EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the traceability provisions “ensure a high level of environmental and health protection and pave the way for a proper labeling system. Certainly there is a cost for the producers and for trade, but what is at stake is our ability to build public confidence.”

European Green politicians and consumer advocates have opposed any threshold for biotech contamination, favoring a “zero-tolerance” policy. Gill Lacroix, biotechnology coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, said the commission proposals would “make a mockery of EU legislation that is intended to protect us as consumers and our environment. The European Commission, in making these proposals, is putting the commercial interests of the biotech industry and the USA before the safety and wishes of European citizens.”

EU official says U.S. is not ready for traceability

The United States’ grain handling system is currently not compatible with proposed European traceability requirements, but it could become efficient in two or three years, a European Union official said last month.

Tony Van der haegen, minister-counselor for agriculture, fisheries and consumer affairs in the EU delegation to the United States, described to reporters in Washington, D.C., a trip he had taken from Chicago to New Orleans to observe the bulk commodity system first-hand.

“In the United States, GMOs are regarded as GRAS [generally recognized as safe],” Van der haegen noted. “Farmers mix everything. You see 600 or 700 trucks lined up to pour their contents into elevators. Loads are mixed on barges, too. When barges go down the river, they often swap cargoes. It’s a very fungible system, very efficient, but it’s incompatible with traceability.”

There are some shipments of identity preserved grains and oilseeds, but they are expensive and represent less than 5% of the market, the EU official said. He cited shipments to organic markets and specialized markets in Japan.

“Traceability and IP are possible,” Van der haegen continued. “Everyone has to adapt to the new legislation. It’s easier for soybeans because there is only one [genetic transformation] event.

“Corn has several events, some approved by the EU and some by the U.S. only”

Corn has several events, some approved by the EU and some by the U.S. only.”

Acknowledging that Europe currently offers only a niche market for U.S. non-biotech grains and oilseeds, Van der haegen speculated that would take two or three years for a segregated grain system to become efficient. He noted that the European Commission has set a 1% threshold for adventitious GM presence in non-biotech commodities.

“Soybean producers say 2% is possible,” the EU official said. “Corn producers say 3–5% is possible. There is a real market for IP exports, but the first question is thresholds, and the second question is costs.”

Van der haegen stressed that the United States and EU had agreed in principle on a protocol for sampling and testing under the proposed traceability legislation. He acknowledged that Europe currently imports untested soybeans from South America, about 15% of which contain unapproved GMOs. “Those commodities will be subject to the traceability regulations,” he said.

Stephen Clapp

From Food Traceability Report, August 2001, Volume 1, Number 3.
Copyright (c)2001 CRC Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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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