BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ While the political context for European biotechnology companies continues to pose new problems, the industry has made another attempt to fight back at prejudice against its products. The European biotechnology industry association, EuropaBio, has loudly applauded European Union attempts to restore consumer confidence in the food industry. It hopes the new mechanisms envisioned could also reduce the widespread rejection of genetically modified (GM) foods.

¿The situation requires radical new proposals for an independent and coordinated regulatory system for assessing, inspecting and enforcing all aspects of the safety of genetically modified seeds and plant products, which enter the food chain to provide and re-establish consumer confidence in their safety,¿ said EuropaBio.

¿European citizens do not have trust in the complex array of institutions responsible for assessing and ensuring food safety,¿ EuropaBio conceded, but it says it regards the European Commission¿s recent proposals for a food safety agency ¿as a first step towards improving consumer confidence.¿ The biotechnology industry sees that a new European agency with powers to make binding decisions could overcome some of the negative prejudice that is currently holding back regulatory approval and consumer acceptance of novel biotechnology seed and plant products.

The industry explicitly recognizes that the legitimate public desire for regulatory control of the seed and food industry is not met because of the ¿low level of trust in politicians¿ and because Europe¿s regulatory structures still depend largely on nationally controlled systems, which often are subject to national political influence. This does not give confidence in food safety decisions at a time of increased cross-border trade in Europe¿s single market, EuropaBio said.

EuropaBio said it sympathizes with the call from citizens for ¿independent, high-quality institutions responsible for assessing human and environmental safety whom they can trust to be responsible for giving them accurate information and safeguarding their interests.¿ It wants the environmental impact assessment of genetically modified plants included in the Agency¿s remit, ¿to ensure the same level of scientific rigour and consumer confidence in decisions pertaining to environmental and food safety of genetically modified seeds and plant products.¿ Policy-makers must make policy decisions on regulatory structures, but the European Food Agency should be granted powers to actually make regulatory decision, said the industry association. It recommends existing models such as the Europe Medicines Evaluation Agency, Germany¿s Robert Koch Institute and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.

The range of open questions about the regulatory regime for European biotechnology companies was well demonstrated when European Commissioner Franz Fischler reviewed the state of play in regulation of biotechnology in a speech in Brussels in mid-March. ¿Citizens¿ and consumers¿ concerns are the backbone of markets and political actions,¿ he insisted. Although public policy has consistently tried to stabilize and enhance food safety in Europe, ¿consumer confidence remains a delicate and tender plant,¿ he warned, ¿and trade and safety standards that do not recognize this are based upon a false assumption and so serve nobody¿s long-term interest.¿

Even though Europe is inching its way toward a new food safety policy, there are plenty of divergences to reconcile. The EU has developed a different procedure for GMO approval than in the U.S., and the EU regulatory framework applying to GMOs(genetically modified organisms) is currently under revision, ¿which will require a certain time to find common ground between the various stakeholders involved,¿ the commissioner predicted. He cited the current wide differences over questions such as how far precaution should go, and whether it is appropriate to require demonstration that there are no significant health risks before authorization.

Most of the leading companies supplying food and drink to European consumers already are turning their backs on genetically modified ingredients and derivatives, according to Friends of the Earth Europe. It has published results of a survey, which it says shows that 16 out of 21 of the world¿s top food and drink companies source their ingredients from GMO-free crops for the products they sell in Europe, and that most of their derivatives are ¿ or shortly will be ¿ from GMO-free crops.

Unilever is quoted as saying it was moving to a new system in Europe where ¿hardly any GMO ingredients will be used.¿ Nestle, the biggest food manufacturer in Europe, said it supplied food made from GMO-free crops as far as practically possible, where the public demanded it. Companies that said they currently source all their ingredients from GMO-free crops for the food and drink they sell in Europe include Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, Heinz, Mars, Danon, Kellogg¿s, Campbell Foods, Cadbury Schweppes and Kraft/ Jacobs/ Suchard. Almost all of these indicated that they also source GMO-free derivatives. And Europe¿s top fast-food chain, McDonald¿s Europe, ¿has asked suppliers to source non-GM ingredients, additives and processing aids.¿

The survey launch coincides with the start of a new Friends of the Earth campaign in 22 countries across Europe, calling for ¿a halt to the GMO pollution of food and the environment.¿ Liana Stupples, GMO campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: ¿This survey shows how food manufacturers are being forced to listen to European consumers increasingly concerned about potential health and environmental damage from GMO food and crops.¿ She added: ¿Consumers must continue to make it clear that they do not want these foods. Then companies and politicians will be forced to act.¿

Meanwhile, the UK announced on March 17 its latest scientific program of farm-scale evaluations of GM crops, in line with advice from the UK¿s independent scientific steering committee. Crops will be grown this spring at 30 sites for maize, beet, and oil seed rape, and as many as 80 further sites will be announced over the coming weeks. UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher promised there would no commercial growing of GM crops in the UK ¿until we are satisfied that there will be no unacceptable effects on the environment.¿