Consumers win right to know

The European Union has agreed the world's strictest legislation requiring labeling of all GE food and feed

Feature story - November 29, 2002
Since genetically modified foods hit the markets consumers have asked for labeling of products that contain GE ingredients. We have not been able to make this fundamental choice to eat genetically modified organisms or not because we often cannot tell what products contain GE ingredients and which do not. Now the European Union is leading the way with the strictest labeling requirements in the world for GMOs and consumers will have a choice.

European consumers win the right to choose. All GMO food and feed will be labelled.

The EU Agriculture Council's new regulations for genetically modified food and feed are the world's strictest and most comprehensive regulations for labeling of GM food and feed. For the first time, GM feed will be labeled in the European Union. When the legislation comes into force, no GM product will be allowed unlabelled into the EU market.

All GM food and food ingredients, including highly processed derivatives such as sugar, refined oil and starch, produced from genetically modified organisms, will have to be clearly labeled. Another separate new regulation will set up a thorough 'traceability' system in order to follow food and food ingredients consisting of, containing or produced from GMOs across all stages of the food processing and distribution chain through to the final product.

This decision proves that consumers, when asserting their rights, can win against the most powerful corporate lobbies. The most important practical effect of this new regulation is that no GMOs will be able to enter the European market unlabelled.

This sends a strong message to commodity exporting nations such as the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil which have resisted mandatory labeling. The times when you could sneak millions of tonnes of GM soybeans and maize unlabelled into the European food chain are definitely over.

But it is not all good news.

A major concern remains. The new regulation does not contain adequate safeguards that would allow EU member countries to enact national bans on approved GM products where there are reasons to consider that there are possible risks for health or the environment. This kind of safeguard exists in the former and current EU legislation on GMOs and must be included also in the new GM Food and Feed Regulation.

However, the UK government's attempt to undermine the GMO labeling for products derived from GMOs insisting that the GMOs must be traceable in the final product was definitively defeated. All food and feed ingredients will have to be labeled, if they are produced from GMOs whether they are traceable in the final product or not.

The threshold for the labelling of GE food and feed was set at 0.9 percent,

regrettably not as low as 0.5 percent that the European Parliament requested earlier this year. However, the fact that it will be below 1 percent consequently will also force a much needed re-assessment of the EU Commission proposal on GE contamination of seeds. It will also be possible to establish lower thresholds through a technical procedure for foods containing or consisting of live GMOs.

These could include existing EU legislation agreed in 1997 requiring labelling of some GE foods. The US has already lost EU markets for these products which required to be labelled, including US corn exports to Europe which dropped from $305 million in 1996 to $2 million in 2001.

The council also rejected a Danish proposal aiming at imposing labeling of animal products produced with GM feed, such as meat, milk and eggs, and urged producers and retailers to voluntarily inform the consumers about whether GE feed has been used, through the appropriate labeling on the final product.

Yet the council's decision is a great victory for consumers in the European Union and sets a high standard that other consumers around the world can hold up as and example for their right to choose.