BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Commission (EC) has initiated legal action against Portugal for failing to correctly implement two European Union directives dealing with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This is not the first time the EC has acted against one of its member states for not meeting commitments under European Union (EU) law, but it is the first time Portugal has been the target of anger over biotechnology regulations.

At issue is Portugal's implementation of the 1990 EU directives, aimed at assuring environmental safety for biotechnology products and processes: 90/219/EEC on “the contained use of genetically modified organisms“ - which governs research controls; and 90/220/EEC on “the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms“ - which governs marketing authorizations.

The necessary national legislation should have been in place by October 1991. But Portugal did not complete its rules to apply the directives until 1994; and the EC, which has conducted an investigation of the national laws, has concluded the obligations of the two directives are not accurately reflected.

In particular, the Portuguese legislation fails to include provisions to guarantee the confidentiality of certain information that biotechnology companies have to supply.

And in terms of controls on marketing, the Portuguese legislation goes further than the EU rules. In the eyes of the EC, that is as bad as inadequate implementation, because by providing for additional Portuguese conditions with respect to GMO products that have been lawfully placed on the market elsewhere in the EU, Portugal jeopardizes the EU single-market concept, under which all products are supposed to be subject to the same legislation across the 15 member states.

In mid-April the EC sent formal warning letters to the Portuguese government. If it receives no satisfactory responses, the next stage will be to drag Portugal before the European Court of Justice - where a successful prosecution would open the way to compensation for any company that can show it suffered because of the Portuguese legislative failure. *