BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - What the European biotechnology industry calls "the most comprehensive labeling and traceability system for GM products in the world" came into effect April 18 - meaning all food and feed products that contain more than 0.9 percent of safe and approved GM products have to be labeled as containing or made from genetically modified organisms.

The rules were brought in after consultation with consumer and environmental groups, as well as industry. They tighten earlier requirements, which date back to 1998, and extend mandatory labeling to new human food products, as well as requiring the labeling of animal feed products for the first time ever.

Full traceability now is required for GM products from farm to consumer, so that ingredients from GM crops that no longer contain modified DNA also will be labeled. In practice, that means that on top of the products for which a labeling requirement already existed (such as sweet corn), new food products (such as vegetable oil and sugars) also will be labeled.

Companies applying for authorization now will have to identify the scope of the application, indicate what parts are confidential and include a monitoring plan, a labeling proposal and a detection method for the new GM food or feed. Applications previously submitted will be automatically converted.

The rules also explain how notifications of existing food and feed products should be prepared and presented, to show that products are safe and do not mislead the consumer. They will have to include a detection method and samples of the products.

Other novelties introduced by the new rules include principles for environmental-risk assessment, mandatory post-market monitoring requirements (including long-term effects associated with the interaction with other GMOs and the environment) and mandatory information to the public. First approvals for the release of GMOs now is limited to a maximum of 10 years.

That should create a system of consumer choice, said Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit at EuropaBio - the European association for bioindustries. EuropaBio is hoping the EU member states now will lift the de facto EU moratorium that has prevented the authorization of new products for more than four years.

So far, products from only 16 GMOs can legally be marketed in the EU - including one GM soy and one GM maize, processed foods derived from seven GM oilseed rape, four GM maize and oil from two GM cottonseeds. Nine GM foods are pending approval, including products from GM maize, sugar beat and soy bean. But member states have been holding back approvals on the pretext that the EU rules were not comprehensive on traceability. The industry expects the new controls to eliminate vestigial anxieties over safety and choice.

EuroCommerce, the European association representing the retail and wholesale sectors, also welcomed the new rules: "They provide better information and transparency to consumers and will allow them to make an informed choice between GM and non-GM food," it said.

The legislation also has been welcomed by Friends of the Earth Europe, which called on countries throughout the world to implement similar laws. But it also criticized the legislation for still allowing unapproved GMOs to be present up to 0.5 percent for the next three years, and for not including animal products such as milk and eggs from animals fed GMOs.