BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Europe Union agriculture ministers reached an agreement last Thursday on new rules for genetically modified food and feed - and as a result may have opened the way to an end to the de facto moratorium on new GMO authorizations in Europe.

The new food and feed rules relate to specific questions of product labeling, but the EU member states that are holding up new GMO authorizations had made the new rules a condition for lifting their ban. EU environment ministers are scheduled to reach agreement on related rules on the traceability and labeling of GM products at their meeting Dec. 9 and 10. If the new rules win final approval in the European Parliament early next year, it should resolve EU member states' safety concerns that have been blocking new GMO authorizations in Europe since 1998, European Union officials said.

The effect of the agreement among agriculture ministers will be to extend current EU labeling requirements to cover foods such as soy or maize oil produced from GM-soy or GM-maize and food ingredients produced from GM sources, such as biscuits with maize oil produced from GM-maize. Any food and feed product that has more than 0.9 percent will have to carry a label making clear it contains GM material. The rules also mean that marketing of GM feed will be subject to prior approval.

David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection, said the regulation "paves the way for the adoption of the traceability and labeling proposal," and would establish "a sound EU system to regulate the placing on the market and labeling of food and feed products derived from GMOs."

Danish Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Mariann Fischer Boel, who chaired the meeting, said: "We have taken an important step towards offering consumers a real choice when it comes to GMOs. This is an important victory for the European consumers."

Agriculture ministers also fixed a 0.5 percent tolerance level of GM material that can be present at trace levels (known as "adventitious presence" - arising during cultivation, harvest, transport and processing) in food and feed products. Any product containing traces of GM material above this level will not be allowed on the EU market. This is tighter than the 1 percent tolerance level in earlier drafts of the legislation.

The agreement was greeted with cautious approval by European industry. Simon Barber, director for plant biotechnology at the European bio-industries association, EuropaBio, welcomed the fact that the new rules provide "some consistency to authorizing and labeling GM products across the European Union." But Barber said the new rules were unduly stringent. He said the thresholds were "very low," particularly for the 0.9 percent labeling threshold - well below the levels elsewhere in the world, which ranged from 1 percent to as much as 5 percent. Overall, he said, the agreement reached shows ministers' "general reticence towards encouraging the use of innovative technologies in food and agriculture."

By contrast, European environmentalists attacked the threshold levels as too high. Friends of the Earth said it was good that labeling will be extended to all food and feed with GM content, but the 0.9 percent threshold "leaves the door open for widespread GM contamination of the environment and could prevent millions of consumers in Europe from exercising their right to choose not to eat GM food." Friends of the Earth campaigner Pete Riley said environment ministers and the European Parliament should tighten the threshold even more.

But Commissioner Byrne was critical of alarmism about biotechnology products: "I deplore scaremongering' about GMOs. Every GMO authorized in the EU has been evaluated for its safety by independent scientists and there are no known adverse effects on human health from eating GMOs."

Companies are concerned that even this agreement may leave Europe divided. In particular, EuropaBio had urged ministers to give firm backing to a centralized safety assessment procedure for GM products through the European Union's new Food Safety Authority now being set up. But instead, EU agriculture ministers opted for a decentralized environmental safety assessment of GM seeds, leaving open the risk that different member states will reach different decisions. "A consistent set of rigorous safety assessment standards across Europe, coordinated and managed by one central body, is important," said EuropaBio - all the more so since the EU is likely to grow from its current 15 member states to 25 by 2004, as countries from central and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean join.