Commission outlines GMO tracking options

Opinions sought on proposals for requiring labelling, traceability, of live GMO or GMO-derived products

The European Commission has released proposals on ensuring that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and GM-derived products can be traced back to their origins and labelled for consumers. Reflecting the political sensitivity of the issue and the trade-offs that exist with any route forward, the document lists options without recommendations and asks for member states' views.

Successful introduction of EU rules on traceability and labelling of GMOs approved under the 1994 "deliberate release" directive is expected to enable lifting of the bloc's quasi-moratorium on authorisations (ENDS Daily 24 June 1999).

The Commission indicated this summer that it would make proposals, stressing that the current moratorium could be legally challenged by biotechnology firms (ENDS Daily 13 July). Any new traceability and labelling rules might be brought into effect alongside or even ahead of entry-into-force of the revised deliberate release directive, now in the very last stages of negotiation (ENDS Daily 10 November).

Three key elements of a traceability system, says the new working paper, would be identification of GM status at each stage of market approval, a "unique identifier" code held in a central database, and transmission of relevant information by all operators.

These features could be achieved in three different ways, the Commission says: through the "comitology" procedure under the deliberate release directive; under "vertical" regulations, such as novel foods and seeds legislation; or under a "horizontal" regulation applying to all GMOs. Each option would have advantages and disadvantages, it stresses.

In addition, none of the options would enable traceability of products derived from GMOs since these are not regulated under the deliberate release directive. The Commission proposes four further options for dealing with these products.

Another four options are presented for ensuring better labelling of food derived from GMOs, including maintaining the status quo - which relies on detection of modified DNA or protein - or other options that would require varying degrees of documentation as proof. The tougher the rules, the more elaborate the record keeping that would be required, the Commission cautions. One option, it says, would be to stick with current rules for foods derived from GM products but create a new "GMO-free" label.

A final section of the paper discusses the need for further harmonisation of labelling rules across GM foods, feeds and seeds, including general application of a 1% threshold for accidental contamination.

Follow Up:
European Commission health and consumers directorate, tel: +32 2 299 1111, and GMO traceability and labelling working document.

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