BRUSSELS, Belgium - Regulatory confusion over genetically modified products in Europe has become even more profound after the latest failure of the European Union (EU) to resolve a fundamental disagreement within its own regulatory system.

Not only are two of the 15 EU member states refusing to follow decisions to authorize biotech products, but the EU's own civil service, the European Commission (EC), has failed to convince the member states that the revolt should be put down.

A top-level advisory committee refused April 15 to back the EC, and the rebel member states are still keeping EU-approved biotech products off their markets. The issue can be resolved now only by the European Council of Ministers, drawn from senior national ministers in the EU member states. The council will be asked by the EC to take a definitive view at a meeting later this spring.

Since last year, Austria and Luxembourg have been prohibiting the use of genetically modified Bt-maize - produced by Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland - in their territory, despite the fact that it was approved by the EC in December 1996 for use in all member states under the 1990 EU authorization procedure.

On Feb. 5, 1997, French authorities granted their consent for the maize to be placed on the European market, but just over a week later Austria prohibited the use of the genetically modified Bt-maize on its territory, and on March 17, 1997, Luxembourg informed the EC it also banned the use of the Bt-maize.

At the end of 1997, the EC proposed a repeal of the bans, citing advice it had received from its scientific committees that the possibility of risk was insufficient to justify a ban.

Three scientific committees - for food, for animal nutrition and for pesticides - examined the information submitted by Austria and confirmed it did not constitute new relevant scientific evidence or demonstrate that genetically modified maize constitutes a risk to human health or the environment.

But after months of studying these opinions, the EU's own regulatory committee, established under the 1990 legislation to provide speedy resolution of disputes, failed April 15, 1998, to endorse the EC's proposal to drop the bans. This means the Austrian and Luxembourg bans remain in place, and the discussion now moves to the full Council of Ministers - the only EU body that ranks high enough to override the view of the regulatory committee.

In defense of their bans, Austria and Luxembourg invoked provisions of the 1990 directive that foresee the possibility for member states to provisionally restrict or prohibit the use and sale of an approved genetically modified organism (GMO) product if doubts exist regarding a risk to human health or the environment. The council must act within three months from the date of referral.

Meanwhile, in a bid to appease the doubters, the EC has been giving high priority to the work of a group of experts appointed by member states to draft a protocol for monitoring insect resistance to Bt-maize. The work of the group has been completed and the draft protocol will be discussed by the scientific committee on plants at its next meeting, due to take place next month. *

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