No piece of legislation forcing an industry to do more paperwork or spend more money will ever be greeted with enthusiasm. But the latest regulations from Brussels on GM labelling and traceability have been met with a degree of scepticism unprecedented in EU food regulation. And there is a lot of competition, observe the cynics.
The Food and Drink Federation, which like the UK Food Standards Agency has been virulently opposed to the regulations from the outset, says they are unenforceable, disproportionate and open to fraud.
More worryingly for suppliers and retailers, they hit the UK statute books on April 18, two months before the FSA consultation on how to implement them is completed. Which leaves many people, not least the local authorities that have to enforce them, mightily confused.
Under EC regulations 1829/2203 and 1830/2003,manufacturers must label all colourings, flavourings, preservatives and emulsifiers from GM sources, all animal feed from GM soy or maize, and all ingredients produced from GM material, irrespective of whether it is detectable in the product.
This requires complete traceability from the seed producer to the supplier, and moves the GM labelling regime from a system based on detectability to one reliant on paper trails. This is all very well in principle, says the FDF, but in practice, ingredients derived from GMOs are often the result of a very long supply chain beginning in third countries where agricultural practices and commodity handling procedures are very different to the EU’s.
There are well-established identity-preserved channels for sourcing non-GM crops, says FDF food ingredients manager Lynn Insall. But paper trails for GM ingredients (ie standard sourcing channels) are lousy. “What it will come down to at the end of the day is trusting your suppliers.”
While it may not be too difficult to find non-GM substitutes for soy and maize oils, it will be far harder to find non-GM sources of soy derivatives like lecithin, warns the FSA. “There is already a 60% premium on non-GM lecithin delivered to UK.”
Meanwhile, low cost sources of non-GM soya are drying up. Almost 80% of US soy production and 100% of Argentinean production is genetically modified, while Brazil, the primary source of non-GM soya, is growing more of the GM variety every year.
“The opportunity for the UK food and feed industry to secure entirely non-GM supplies of soy and maize to meet current demand is very limited without additional costs,” says the FSA. “The cost of securing sufficient supplies of non-GM soybeans could be more than £300m a year.”
The bottom line is that the industry will have to jump through hoops to comply with legislation that may ironically serve only to confuse consumers, says Insall. “We will get the paradoxical situation where products that do contain GM, but at less than the 0.9% threshold, will not have to be labelled, while those that don’t, such as highly refined vegetable oil produced from GM soya, will have to be labelled.”
So how will trading standards officers (England and Wales) and environmental health officers (Scotland) enforce the new rules? Lawlabs chief executive Neil Griffiths says prosecutions are very unlikely in the first six months, when local authorities will have to act in an advisory role. Ultimately, however, the courts will define what amounts to “reasonable precautions” by food firms to ensure labelling is up to scratch.
As one biotech source points out, a raft of paperwork isn’t going to benefit consumers if there is no way of testing whether it is reliable or not: “Let’s face it,” he says. “Can a trading standards officer from Basingstoke really determine whether a piece of paper signed by a Brazilian soybean farmer is legit or otherwise?”