New European rules on traceability and labelling for genetically modified foods take effect this month. Biotech supporters say new openness heralds a new start for the technology. Opponents insist opposition is as strong as ever. Chris Lyddon looks at the changes.

Labelling should settle the question of whether consumers will accept genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or not, Bob Fiddaman, the farmer who chairs Britain’s pro-GM Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) told just-food. “This labelling thing is going to be the issue which shows which side is right or wrong,” he said.

A new EU regulation which comes into force on 18 April means that all ingredients that contain or consist of genetically modified organisms, or contain ingredients produced from GMOs have to be labelled as such, even if they contain no transgenic material. There is an exception for processing aids such as enzymes. GM animal feed has to be labelled, but not meat and milk from animals fed on GM feed.

Currently labelling is required, but only for products that actually contain modified DNA.

All GM material used deliberately must be labelled. However, there is a threshold of 0.9% for accidental GM content of approved varieties, as well as an upper limit of 0.5% for non-EU varieties.

The regulation also requires that GM products be traceable at all stages of the food chain under a harmonised EU system. If a company is selling blended oil that contains a proportion of soya and wants to avoid labelling its product, it will have to be able demonstrate that it has a full segregation and traceability system in place.

Change in attitudes

Tony Combes, deputy director general of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, reckons attitudes are changing. There were signs of the change at last month’s Food and Drink Expo in Birmingham, he told just-food. “There was none of the animosity that visitors had two years ago,” he said. “That has completely gone.”

The decision by the UK government to give a guarded green light to growing GM crops, with approval for one variety of GM maize, was also changing attitudes, he felt. But even so there would not be a huge range of new crops. “The second generation of crops with more consumer benefits are not just around the corner,” said Combes. Although he was speaking on this occasion on behalf of ABC, he is also spokesman for international biotechnology company Monsanto. 

One product which had gained acceptance at the Food and Drink Expo was a beer made from GM maize grown in Germany and brewed in Sweden. “The brewer has got a distributor and he wants to sell it in the UK as a novelty item,” said Combes. “You give them a product and people think of it in a different way to a technology. It is the first product from a crop grown and sold in Europe.”

Most people didn’t realise that GM maize was grown in Germany. “These crops are being grown in Western Europe,” he said. “We have had the go-ahead from the government.” 

He was convinced that GM would appear on more labels when the new regulations come into force. “Most retailers haven’t made up their minds what they are going to do,” he said. “Certain things will have to be labelled.”

One example of retailers’ response came from Martin Henderson, spokesman for the Co-operative Group. “We don’t have any GM in own brand products,” he told just-food. “Should there be any brands which are using GMOs and label them it may well have an effect on purchasing behaviour. It may encourage a switch to own brand.”

Tony Combes of ABC stressed that the European Commission had justified the labelling regulations on the grounds of consumer choice, rather than safety. “The benefit of traceability and labelling legislation is that it will give real consumer choice,” he said.

Combes believes that GM products are already used in a wide range of branded foods, citing the listings given on Greenpeace’s website. “The only question is when the own-brand products come in,” he said.

No GM food likely, says Greenpeace

Greenpeace does have a website listing a number of companies under its “shoppers guide to GM”, in the “red” list as “products which may contain GM ingredients or be derived from animals fed on GM crops”. But Greenpeace campaigner Ben Ayliffe says that none of those are actually using GM ingredients which would have to be labelled. “100% of the companies are there because of their position on GM animal feed,” he told just-food. “Even though the labelling rules would enable GM food to come onto the market, we don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Ayliffe did not believe that there had been any softening of consumer attitudes. “People on the whole are still very sceptical,” he said. And their opposition was not just because of health worries. “People want food that hasn’t had a detrimental effect on agriculture,” he said. “The bottom line is that all the GM companies have to offer is herbicide tolerant crops used for animal feed.”

Like Combes, consumer organisations stress choice. “We’re looking at an issue of consumer choice,” Mike O’Neill of the National Consumer Council told just-food. “We believe strongly that consumers should have the option to choose non-GM.” Although the NCC would have liked a lower threshold than the 0.9% in the EU regulation, the new regulation was probably the best outcome it could have hoped for.

The food industry in Britain had lost too much consumer confidence over beef to be trusted straightaway over GM, he said. It was not enough that there was no evidence of any problem caused by GM food. “The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence,” he said. He also felt that many people’s opposition to GM food was turning from being a safety concern to an environmental one.

“In April the consumer can make an informed choice,” he said. “They may look for the product without it.” The vast range in a supermarket meant they did not have to stick to any particular brand. But it was clear that the supermarkets wanted the change to have as little effect as possible.

Thirteen percent of consumers would avoid GM

Consumers care a lot less than the pressure groups think, according to Institute of Grocery Distribution research quoted by SCIMAC in a memorandum to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee late last year. “A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Grocery Distribution indicated that 13% of consumers would use labels to avoid GM foods, 13% would use labels to choose GM foods, while 74% were not sufficiently concerned to take any action either way,” it said. SCIMAC also identified choice as the main issue. “The current situation in relation to GM crops and foods in the UK is largely one of restriction or denial of choice – either to consumers themselves or to farmers and others within the supply chain,” it told the parliamentarians. “In relation to imported GM food ingredients, this may change with the introduction of new GM traceability and labelling rules in April 2004.”

Pointing out that in the only clear example of a choice being offered in Britain, the sale of tomato paste in the mid-1990s, the GM product had outsold the non-GM variety by a clear margin, SCIMAC denied that there was any wholesale consumer rejection of GM crops. “The only meaningful way to gauge market response or consumer attitudes is to provide a choice,” it said.

SCIMAC chairman Bob Fiddaman feels that a lot of non-own-brand products will start to carry GM labelling after April. “It’s inevitable that a range of products are going to carry the label,” he said.

“Consumers have not been given the choice,” he said. “I’m told I have a choice, but I can’t see it.”

Expert Analysis

Genetically Modified Food: Markets, Issues and Implications

Genetically modified (GM) foods have attracted intense media coverage in recent years. Depending on one’s point of view, they have been hailed as “”super foods”” or reviled as “”frankenfoods.”” Yet, despite the controversy, GM foods have found their way onto dining tables. In the United States, an estimated 60% of processed foods in supermarkets–from breakfast cereals to soft drinks–contain a GM ingredient, such as soy, corn, or canola.

To find out more about this report, download your sample or to order your copy, please follow this link