BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Parliament insisted that safety was the priority in its Feb. 11 debate on new controls for genetically modified products. Euro-MPs approved the main lines of a European Commission proposal to update legislation on the marketing of biotechnology products, directive 90/220 on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

But - in line with the draft prepared by the parliament's environment and public health committee - the Euro-MPs called for some significant amendments, including making manufacturers liable for the production of GMOs responsible for any damage to human health or the environment; requiring labeling of all GMOs authorized for release; and banning GMOs containing any antibiotic-resistant genes or traces of toxic substances. Most alarming for manufacturers, Euro-MPs voted to limit the consent for the authorization of new GMOs.

However, industry's worst fears were not realized. Parliament at least called for the limit to be set at 12 years, as opposed to seven years proposed by the commission (and five years as proposed by Green Euro-MPs).

This is the first of two readings of the proposed new rules. On labeling, instead of requiring that labels indicate, "This product may contain GMOs," when their presence could not be excluded, the parliament wants to see a scientific assessment, backed up by compulsory labels clearly stating, "This product contains or consists of GMOs."

Other amendments called for by the parliament included action by national authorities in the EU to prevent gene transfers from GMOs to other organisms, and to find ways of identifying marketed GMOs so that they can be traced and withdrawn if necessary. The parliament called for a study of the likely socio-economic costs and benefits of each GMO release. "This will help ensure that all factors are taken into account before a GMO is released into the environment," said David Bowe, the Euro-MP who supervised the draft report to the parliament. But the parliament rejected the idea of moratoria - which had been proposed by several Euro-MPs, particularly from the U.K.

The tone of much of the debate may be gauged by the contribution of Irish Green Euro-MP Nuala Ahern, who - like some of her colleagues in the parliament - alleged a conspiracy to subvert European food and the European government. She called on all Irish Euro-MPs "to protect the Irish environment and peoples' health by voting to strengthen the directive" and "to resist the intimidating lobbying tactics of the gene industry."

The European biotechnology industry's lobby association, EuropaBio, said after the vote that it was still looking for support for a strong science-based regulatory framework for GMOs. "Neither the current directive, nor the revision proposed by the commission, give[s] industry the confidence to invest in Europe in what is expected to be the new technology of the 21st century," EuropaBio said.