BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union (EU) Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard has confirmed that 13 biotechnology products are awaiting consideration under the product approval procedure of the European Union directive on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This approval process is one of the critical mechanisms which are supposed to protect the EU from unlicensed imports of GMOs - a particularly sensitive issue now that the European Commission (EC) is facing tough questioning from the European Parliament on how effectively it is exercising sufficient protection for consumers against unwitting consumption of genetically modified foods.

The environment commissioner's statement came in reply to questions from German Euro-MP Ursula Schleicher on the risk of GMOs imports. In particular, Schleicher was concerned about the introduction of maize, oilseed rape and soya from the U.S. and Canada “without the requisite consent to place them on the market of EU countries.“

But among the products now under consideration is a request for authorization of the marketing of genetically modified tomatoes. Bjerregaard confirmed that Spain submitted to the EC a report backing the marketing of genetically modified tomatoes with an antibiotic-resistant gene that increases the life and conservation of this fruit.

The environment commission is continually refining its control procedures, indicated Bjerregaard. It has initiated work aimed at harmonization of control and inspection measures in the framework of EU legislation. An ad hoc technical working group already held its first meetings to discuss the availability and applicability of specific technical methods for the detection of potentially unauthorized GMOs.

In line with the environment commission's proposals announced last year to amend this EU legislation, she continued, the EC also has decided all products that meet with any objections from member states should be submitted to specialized scientific committees as a prelude to formal consideration through the EU's regulatory legislation. That proposal was designed to avoid the divergent views that had emerged over some recent product applications.

The scientific committee on plants now has given a favorable opinion on three applications for genetically modified maize and one for genetically modified oilseed rape, Bjerregaard announced.

But in the final analysis it is up to member states to conduct the import controls, she added. At the end of 1997 the EC wrote to the member states regarding imports of bulk maize and oilseed rape from the U.S. and Canada, where certain genetically modified crops not yet authorized in Europe have been harvested.

“On that occasion,“ she said, “the European Commission reminded the member states of their obligation to organize inspection and other control measures“ in accordance with the EU legislation in question. *