EU gene product labelling on the way

Commission proposes "first step" ; "comprehensive" communication promised soon

European Commissioners today adopted a proposal to require labelling of all genetically modified products in the EU. One Commissioner voted against the proposal, which was rushed out as a "transitional" measure to prevent member states taking unilateral measures - Austria, for instance, published national labelling legislation today..

Political controversy over genetically modified products has intensified over the past year. Some countries have imposed national bans on imports or cultivation of genetically engineered maize and soya products, despite their having received EU marketing clearance. The Commission today admitted that objections by member states to further product approvals "has lately increased to the extent that a qualified majority in favour of clearing most products currently notified...seems unlikely."

It is proposing to amend an annex to the 1990 directive on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The annex specifies data that companies wanting to market or grow GMOs commercially must submit to the authorities. The proposal must now be approved by a regulatory committee of member state officials.

Currently the directive only requires manufacturers to label products as genetically modified where safety issues are identified. Under the new proposal, companies would have to submit a label for all modified products.

The proposal does not apply to products already approved or to 11 products in the approvals pipeline. Monsanto's soyabean or Novartis' maize products, on which much of the debate has centred, would therefore not have to be labelled.

Environmentalists say that the proposal does not address the complexities of the food supply chain. It requires labelling, but not segregation of modified foods from conventional varieties at each stage, which they claim is a prerequisite. Greenpeace International said today that the Commission "will continue to leave consumers in the dark...these labelling regulations will only tell consumers a product may contain genetically altered organisms."

The Commission is also proposing to require manufacturers to submit "molecular data" which will be used to compile a register of authorised GMO products, so that risk assessments of future products can take potential interactions with these into account.

The Commission emphasises that the proposal is a "first step", pending completion of a review of the deliberate release directive (ENDS Daily 4 March). It intends to produce a "comprehensive" communication on labelling as soon as possible. Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said today: "Nobody should underestimate the need for comprehensive, meaningful and thorough information to consumers in the field of biotechnology."

Follow Up:
European Commission: tel: +32 2 295 1111; Greenpeace EU Unit, tel: +32 2 280 1400.

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