Commission set for major GMO U-turn

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Series Details Vol.7, No.20, 17.5.01, p1
Publication Date 17/05/2001
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Date: 17/05/01

By Laurence Frost

THE EUROPEAN Commission is planning a major

climbdown to allow the sale of food containing traces of genetically-modified organisms that have not been scientifically approved.

Proposals on traceability to be unveiled next month by Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne will set maximum levels for the accidental introduction of GMOs that have not been tested for sale in the EU.

EU environment chief Margot Wallström is going back on a hard-won revision of the '90/220' directive which imposed tougher rules on GMO approvals,by tabling an amendment to introduce 'acceptable' contamination limits.

Her spokesman, Annika Ostergren, confirmed the change of plan would be put before Commissioners shortly.

The two proposals, due for adoption on 6 June, are likely to provoke anger from green organisations and from the six countries currently blocking the approval of new GM crops.

France, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg have said the 90/220 deal negotiated with the Commission and MEPs earlier this year was a minimum condition for lifting their moratorium. The introduction of stringent traceability rules was another.

Green groups criticise Byrne's proposal to leave the actual levels of the thresholds to be decided later by committees. "If you don't take a firm position industry will just sit back and let contamination happen," said Gill Lacroix of Friends of the Earth. The move to amend the revised 90/220 directive contradicts measures within it that outlaw unauthorised GMOs, she said.

Wallström's U-turn is understood to have come after a breakfast meeting with Byrne, when the food supremo persuaded her that 'adventitious presences' of unauthorised GMOs would have to be accepted if the new rules were to be workable for the food industry.

"If you're going to have thresholds [in traceability] you're going to have to change 90/220 - that's the message from the legal service," a Commission official said. "Wallström and Byrne have agreed so whatever the services say is irrelevant. We just do what we're told."

The Commission's health and consumer safety department recently amended the proposal to allow the presence of untested GMOs - not mentioned in earlier drafts. Officials say the changes were made after Byrne came under heavy pressure on the issue during a recent trip to Washington.

US diplomats have repeatedly made their concerns known to the EU over GM rules, with industry leaders going even further by warning of an all-out trade war if the problem is not resolved (European Voice, March 22).

The discovery of unapproved GMOs in food products caused major public outcry in the US last year, after Starlink maize - approved only for animal feed - was discovered in taco shells at a popular restaurant chain.

But biotech firms say the thresholds are necessary to cope with the tiny levels that are inevitable through cross-pollination of food crops in the wild and cross-contamination in the production process.

"Regulatory agencies all over the world have permitted field trials for over 20 years now, so these things are there in the environment," said Simon Barber of biotech association Europabio. "If you're saying you can't have them, you're saying normal biological processes can't take place."

This is a view backed by some members of Byrne's services. "Let's be very clear," said one official. "We're not talking about heavy metals or dioxins, we're talking about things like maize. We already have tolerance levels for cadmium, arsenic, lead and dioxins in our foods - why not GMs?"

The European Commission is planning a major climbdown to allow the sale of food containing traces of genetically-modified organisms that have not been scientifically approved.

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