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Saturday, 30 October, 1999, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Genetically modified food and consumers
Cash register
M & S waits to see if customers will pay more for non-GM food
Marks & Spencer's decision to remove genetically-modified products from animal feed has prompted questions about how much people will pay for non-GM food.

The move will force prices up by 10% to 15% and will be the first real test of customer demand for non-GM food. It comes amid a supermarket spat about who was first to remove GM food from their shelves.

The danger exists that the debate about non-GM food could be eclipsed by games of oneupmanship between the major supermarkets, leaving customers no clearer about what is in the food they buy.

Iceland says its milk will be GM free
Already other supermarkets have followed the M&S example. Frozen-food retailer Iceland says it wants to ensure all meat, poultry, milk and eggs comes from livestock reared on non-GM diets and it won't pass the cost on to consumers.

"It doesn't seem fair to charge the customer a premium to eat safe food," said Malcolm Walker, chairman of Iceland foods.

Sainsburys say they also intend to take this step but don't yet know if it will result in price increases.

The cost of non-GM animal feed is bumped up by the cost of separating it from GM animal feed.

"There is so little availability of non-GM animal feed, it is not available at the same price," a Marks & Spencer spokeswoman said. But she pointed out that if customer demand was high, this could force the price lower.

Sue Davis, of the Consumers' Association, agrees. "As there is more demand and more retailers follow this example, it puts pressure on suppliers to come up with segregated supplies."

M&S will be monitoring the October launch to assess customer demand.

Many supermarkets no longer stock GM food
The retail company can take some hope from the growth of their organic range, relaunched in March 1998. Originally they stocked just 10 lines - this has since grown to 50 and is expected to increase.

If customer demand for more expensive, non-GM food does exist, the question remains as to how supermarkets and customers can be sure that what they buy is what it claims to be.

About two million tonnes of soya and maize are imported from the US, where GM and non-GM feeds are mixed. Experts say it should still be possible to correctly source non-GM food.

M&S say they already monitor animal feed and they have enough checks in place to avoid mistakes. "We get involved in the food from source - we are there when it is harvested," said the spokeswoman.

"We have done that in the past with animal feed. We have very high specifications, what our animals are fed is set in accordance with our technologists."

Consumer support

The supermarkets' move has been welcomed by consumer groups. Sue Davis, of the Consumers' Association, said: "It is very good that Marks & Spencer and Iceland have shown they can trace ingredients right the way back through the food chain."

She said supermarkets still needed a common standard, so that customers could look at two GM-free products and know that the labels meant the same thing.

"It is important that the government works with industry on this," she added

As it is, supermarkets are already squabbling over who removed GM products first.

Iceland and Waitrose have lodged complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority after Sainsbury claimed to be the first major supermarket to make its own-label food without GM ingredients.

Sainsbury is standing by the wording of the advertisement, which said it was the first "major" supermarket to do so.

"Iceland has approximately 3,000 products; we have up to 25,000 products in our stores. We have literally thousands of suppliers we have had to work alongside. Waitrose has 100 stores, we have in excess of 400," a spokesman said, in his effort to substantiate the supermarket's claims.

See also:

22 Jul 99 | Politics
19 Aug 99 | Business
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