With the backlash against genetically modified (GM) food showing no signs
of abating, more and more food companies are pledging to go GM-free.
This has made for some strange bedfellows. McDonald's and Burger King are
the latest to make common cause with vegetarian and organic food producers
as well as the major food retailers by publicly saying they aim to phase
out these ingredients. But this route is so poorly regulated and perilous
that companies could be excused for wondering if they should bother. Last
weekend United Biscuits and some wholefood firms, which have moved further
than most in going non-GM, were embarrassed when their products tested
positive for GM material in trials commissioned by the Daily Mail. Two
weeks earlier, UB's Linda McCartney brand meals also tested positive on
The company has operated a non-GM policy for all its products, including
McVities, for 18 months. The soya in its products is grown in Denmark,
which does not permit GM organisms, and processed at a mill approved by
Greenpeace. Its own tests had been negative. 'I don't know what more we
can do,' said an exasperated spokesman.
But David Welsby, regional director of Protein Technologies International,
a subsidiary of US chemicals giant Dupont, which has 80 per cent of the
world market for non-GM soya-based ingredients, described EU regulation of
GM food as 'a mess'. The DNA testing required under the EU's Novel Food
Directive is difficult to do, and the results are notoriously erratic.
Welsby said: 'Testing isn't a simple black and white procedure. The
[Newsnight] test may have picked up the tiniest trace of GM material in
the Linda McCartney product - or it could have been a false positive.'
PTI sent the same sample of its own product to several labs: 'One tested
completely negative, another showed 10 per cent [of GM material], one less
than 1 per cent and one between 0.1 and 0.5 per cent.'
The certification of other foods allows for some accidental contamination
- in the case of organic products, it's 5 per cent - but the EU allows
none for GM foods. As Stephen Ridge, quality assurance executive of the
Somerfield supermarket chain, says: 'The birds and the bees have a habit
of spreading seeds, and these can co-mingle in the supply chain. In the
processing chain co-mingling becomes more of a problem. Yet there's no
percentage below which I don't worry now about contamination.'
And uniquely, the EU requires full DNA testing for GM food, rather than
the audit of production processes needed to certify other foods.
'The directive is very ambiguous,' says Welsby. 'It mentions a threshold,
but doesn't say what it should be. It mentions testing, but doesn't define
a test method. It's a mess.'
Since 1996, when the US, the biggest soya producer, first considered
mixing Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM soya with the conventional crop, UK
supermarkets have joined environmental groups such as Greenpeace in
campaigning for GM crops to be segregated from normal ones.
Having lost the US battle to Monsanto, most have quietly sought segregated
supplies of non-GM soya in the US, Canada and Brazil - uncertain until the
past fortnight whether UK consumers would, like US ones, swallow GM
The decision is not taken lightly. 'Identity-preserved' soya is about 10
per cent dearer because farmers are paid a premium not to switch to
high-yielding Ready Roundup. Segregated processing and DNA testing add to
Some companies have different policies in different European markets.
Unilever, for example, is non-GM in Germany, where the backlash came much
earlier, but as yet not in the UK, where its products are slated to be
delisted by the Vegetarian Society.
Firms that have gone non-GM have had in effect to take the law into their
own hands, setting up audit trails of 'identity preserved' crops and
fixing their own permitted levels of accidental contamination.
Labelling is another problem. The EU regulation requires labelling only of
foods that contain genetically modified soya and maize, but excludes
ingredients derived from them such as lecithins, soya oil and maize
starches, which are in 60 per cent of the food we eat - everything from
baby food to beer and chocolate. The EU has promised to clarify the
situation for these foods, but has not yet done so. Welsby points out that
some tests can now detect GM material in lecithins, even though they are
excluded from the regulations because they are classified as an additive.
This means a product may be GM-free from proteins, but still test
positive. 'Someone could pick this up in a test and trumpet it in the
Daily Mail as genetically modified.'
Ridge at Somerfield said: 'The regulators are moving much more slowly than
the media and public. Retailers are facing the complications we predicted.
The more you challenge suppliers about the GM status of products, the more
hedging you get.'
While most stores are not labelling their non-GM products because of the
uncertainty, others are risking it.
Lindsay Keenan of Genetix Food Alert, a group co-ordinating the wholefood
trade's efforts to go GM-free, said: 'We're encouraging our members to say
they are non-GM on their labels. If [Food Minister] Jeff Rooker wants to
take us to court, he can. We'll get this out in the open.'
Frozen food specialist Iceland has gone furthest: it labels all its
products non-GM. But it has been a battle. In a submission to the Commons
Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry on GM food last week,
Iceland chairman Malcolm Walker said the Government advisory committees
were pro-GM and had put up roadblocks.
'We were told we would damage the prosperity of the UK if we raised our
concerns and prevented the progress of this technology,' said Walker.
Bill Wadsworth, Iceland's (brit supermarket chain descended from fish
marketing chain) technical director, said the company could continue its
stance for at least another two years, 'as long as the Government doesn't
allow GM oilseed rape to be grown commercially, and trial crops aren't
dumped in the open market'.
'The issue's increasing profile helps us,' he added. 'But it's not easy.
The politics could change overnight.'
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