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

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

Bjerregaard's statement came in reply to questions from German Euro-MP Ursula Schleicher on the risk of imports of GMOs - in particular maize, 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 to market genetically modified tomatoes. Bjerregaard confirmed that Spain had submitted to the EC a report backing the marketing of genetically modified tomatoes with an antibiotic-resistant gene, which increases the life and conservation of the fruit.

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

And in line with the EC's proposals last year to amend this legislation, Bjerregaard continued, the EC has decided all products that meet with any objections from member states will be submitted to specialized scientific committees as a prelude to formal consideration through the EU's regulatory legislation. The move is an attempt to avoid the divergent views that emerged over some recent product applications.

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

But, she added, it is up to member states to actually conduct the import controls. 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, the European Commission reminded the member states of their obligation to organize inspections and other control measures,“ Bjerregaard said, in accordance with EU legislation. *