BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Parliament voted last week in favor of tighter European Union rules on putting biotechnology products on the market.

At the end of a vigorous debate on how to update the EU's 1990 rules on deliberate release of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, into the environment, Euro-MPs overwhelmingly backed some new restrictions. But they were not as severe as the industry had feared.

They said they wanted a definite date of 2005 for phasing out the use of GMOs that are resistant to antibiotics, rather than simply phasing them out progressively. They want a new assessment to be made of the impact of biotechnology on the environment within the EU. Prior consent from governments will be required before any imports of GMO products can take place. And they want stricter environmental risk assessment of new products.

The Parliament was not entirely negative to biotechnology products. It rejected amendments that would have immediately banned all antibiotic-resistant GMOs and did not support the call from some Euro-MPs for manufacturers of GMO products to bear strict civil liability for any damage caused. Another amendment calling for measures to be taken to prevent gene transfer from GMOs to other organisms in the environment also was rejected. And the Parliament called for pharmaceuticals to be excluded from the scope of these EU rules.

John Bowis, an environment spokesman for the UK section of the Parliament's majority grouping, the European People's Party, said: "We seek a sensible balance between the potential for the good that GMOs could bring and the potential risk that GMO experiments could pose. We must manage that risk without damaging British biotechnology. We also believe that the industry should not be in any worse position with regard to liability than any other area of environmental risk."

Margot Wallstrvm, European environment commissioner, welcomed the Parliament's vote as a step toward "a much more balanced and effective framework for risk assessment and approval of GMO products in the future." She said the balanced view the Parliament had taken "responds to the concerns of many European citizens."

The European Commission indicated it would back some of the Parliament's demands, including mandatory transmission of new information to the public, real possibilities for public comment, the phase-out of antibiotic resistance marker genes by 2005, and obligations to ensure that the implications of gene transfer are accurately assessed on a case-by-case basis. It welcomed the Parliament's rejection of a sector-specific liability regime, and said it planned to propose a cross-sectoral regime for environmental damage by the end of 2001. But it said it would not back export/import obligations, and that it had "doubts" about excluding pharmaceuticals from the directive. The final decision now will have to be made by EU ministers in the Environment Council, which will meet next on June 22.

The European biotechnology industry association, EuropaBio, welcomed the rejection by the European Parliament of proposals for a liability regime specifically for genetically modified products. It said if the Parliament had called for environmental liability or the prevention of gene transfer from GMOs to other organisms in the environment, it would have meant "the end of further developments using modern plant biotechnology in Europe." EuropaBio said biotechnology products and activities already are covered by cross-sectoral civil, administrative, criminal, product and environmental liability laws, both at the national and the EU levels, "and the European bioindustries abide by these laws."

EuropaBio also welcomed calls by the Parliament for a centralized safety assessment procedure, saying it would be "more efficient and transparent."