EU Commission bids to break GMO deadlock

Wallström, Byrne, pledge new labelling, traceability, regime to restart approvals procedure

The European Commission is to propose a new, stronger labelling and traceability regime for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in a bid to end the current standstill in the EU's GMO product approval system. The move has been prompted by fears of legal action from biotechnology companies frustrated by some EU member states' refusal to approve new products until the rules are tightened.

The Commission is to bring forward proposals for a "comprehensive" labelling requirements and an "initiative" on traceability by the autumn. It says they could be agreed more rapidly than normal as they would be based on a new framework law on GMOs. This is expected to be finalised by governments and the European Parliament by the end of the year and to enter force in 2002.

The move is a direct response to five member states - France, Italy, Greece, Denmark and Luxembourg - which argued last year that the existing law, known as the deliberate release directive, was not strong enough to allay consumers' concerns on these two key issues (ENDS Daily 24 June 1999). They pledged to block all GM product approvals until stronger rules were agreed, stalling authorisation of several products cleared for commercialisation by EU scientists.

Announcing the initiative today, environment commissioner Margot Wallström said this de facto moratorium on GMO approvals was illegal. "Companies could, if they wished, take the Commission to the European Court of Justice," she said. This was unlikely in the short term because they were wary of adverse publicity, she continued, but "is a long-term risk if the Commission doesn't take the initiative."

Consumer and health commissioner David Byrne said failure to make progress could lead to lower levels of environmental and public health protection. "I'm apprehensive that if an application [to the court] is made, it could result in approvals being forced through under the old rules." These "old" rules apply until the new directive enters force but are much less stringent. If member states agree to the proposals, he said, companies would have to comply with the new rules even before they are formally transposed into national laws.

Ms Wallström will gauge the response to the plans tomorrow when she discusses them with ministers at an informal environment council under the French presidency in Paris. The signs are not good, however: opposition from just a single dissenting member state will be sufficient to maintain the blockage. And both the French and Greek environment ministers have already said that say biotech companies should additionally be liable for any damage they cause before any approvals can go ahead (ENDS Daily 23 June). The Commission, along with most other governments and the European Parliament, say this is a step too far.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; see also press release IP/00/778 on Rapid.

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