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Friday, February 19, 1999 Published at 19:11 GMT

UK Politics

No 10 takes GM defence online

Downing Street uses the Net to counter newspaper reports

The government has started a public information campaign on genetically-modified food using the Number 10 Downing Street Website.

Food under the microscope
The Internet campaign hits back at newspaper reports and so-called scare stories surrounding GM foods.

It insists no split exists on the testing of GM crops between the government and its adviser English Nature.

And it rejects allegations that the British people are being used as guinea pigs for untested new foods.

[ image: No commercial GM crops are grown in the UK, the Downing Street site says]
No commercial GM crops are grown in the UK, the Downing Street site says
"There are only three GM food products on sale in this country - tomato paste, a form of soya and maize," the site says.

"None are grown here. No new GM product has been approved in the last two years under this government.

"No new product would be allowed onto the market unless and until it had gone through a rigorous safety assessment, set out in EU legislation."

It goes on to say The Guardian identified the wrong gene when it ran a front-page story saying Food Safety Minister Lord Sainsbury had an interest in a key gene patent.

The move is part of a sustained campaign by the government to counter the growing tide of public feeling against GM foods.

It follows a letter by five leading ministers to MPs to put the case against a ban on GM crops and reassure them public safety was the top priority.

Emma Udwin: "The letter suggests that the government cannot even get the support of its own backbenchers"
The letter was signed by five key ministers - Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Health Secretary Frank Dobson, Cabinet Office Minister Jack Cunningham, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Stephen Byers - and accompanied by a 50-page factfile.

It said: "Throughout history, new scientific advances have raised new fears.

"Some of these have proved irrational, others have proved well-judged.

"The government's first priorities are to protect people and the environment. But we must do so in ways that do not deny to our people the healthcare, environmental, economic and other benefits that flow from technological advances.

"That would be an abdication of the responsibility placed on us."

But Liberal Democrat food spokesman Paul Tyler said the government was now reduced to "blind panic".

He said: "This joint letter from five Cabinet ministers is all too reminiscent of the shock joint statement from Douglas Hogg and Stephen Dorrell on BSE, three years ago.

"That too marked a government climbdown and that too led to a collapse of confidence."

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