BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union environment ministers gave their approval to further rules on traceability and labeling of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms when they met here last week.

The aim is to help restore public and market confidence, by providing consumers with an effective choice between GMO and non-GMO products. But the ministers' outline political agreement still has to get the green light from the European Parliament before it becomes law.

The agreement would establish common measures throughout the EU, under which any product containing GMOs that is to be made available to consumers will have to be labeled as such. When operators at any point in the production and distribution chains are handling products that contain GMOs, they will be obliged to provide this information to the next operator in the chain, thus ensuring traceability. And in accompanying documentation, operators will have to list the individual GMOs that have been used to make the original raw material for products intended for food, feed and processing.

The rules complement other EU rules already in force or recently approved - including those on GMO labeling backed by EU agriculture ministers in late November. (See BioWorld International, Dec. 4, 2002.)

Notably, environment ministers adopted the same thresholds for the accidental presence of minute traces of GMOs in products for food, feed and processing: a 0.5 percent threshold limit for adventitious traces of GMOs that are unauthorized but have nevertheless been assessed as being risk-free, and a 0.9 percent minimum threshold below which products can be exempted from labeling requirements. Each of these small steps brings closer the lifting of the ban that half of the EU member states have put on new GMO authorizations on the grounds of safety.

But four member states - Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the UK and Denmark - had reservations over the new measure, in part because they were concerned it was still excessively constraining on industry and science.

European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, who has been pushing hard for the new rules to be adopted, welcomed the ministers' decision. "The people of Europe want to be fully informed about the use of GMOs in food, feed and agricultural production. It is our responsibility as policymakers to show strong political leadership and do what is necessary to ensure a high level of environmental protection as well as safety and consumer choice. This is essential if Europe is to reap the potential benefits of GMOs and biotechnology," she said.

The EU also has set up a European Network of Genetically Modified Organisms Laboratories (ENGL), composed of laboratories appointed by national authorities. Each member has national control responsibilities. The laboratories came together to improve their tackling of scientific issues related to implementing the existing and forthcoming GMO-related legislation. The main duties of ENGL are to look at the different GMOs put on the market, and to ensure that the control laboratories can trace GMOs throughout the food chain.

The ENGL will primarily have to develop and validate methods for detecting and quantifying GMOs in food and feed. Once a method has been optimized, ENGL will set up internal inter-laboratory tests to check if the methods are suitable for control purposes and if so, labs will use them in their control work. Biotechnology companies have indicated that they will fully collaborate with ENGL on a voluntary basis. Industry will provide details on DNA sequences needed to detect their GM material, enabling the development of harmonized methods.

The need to complete this set of EU biotechnology rules was underlined again by European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin last week. Speaking in The Hague, he said: "There are strong indications that Europe is doing badly in demonstrating that it is a good place to innovate," particularly for developing biotechnology activities. "Some regulations can have dire effects on R&D, as in the case of genetically modified organisms in Europe," he said. "Europeans have abandoned that field to the United States because of the bad perceptions and the stringent regulations attached to GMOs in Europe." But he held out the hope that regulatory improvements and the EU's recently adopted plan for life sciences research will change circumstances for the better.