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Friday, May 21, 1999 Published at 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK


GM food declared 'safe'

GM soya: already used in many processed foods sold in the UK

Genetically-modified (GM) food on sale in the UK is safe to eat, the government said on Friday, but they have been advised to set up a nationwide health monitoring programme.

[ image:  ]
Dr Jack Cunningham told the House of Commons: "There is no evidence to suggest that any GM foods on sale in this country are harmful."

He said GM technology could lead to many real benefits but the risks had to be "rigorously assessed", because the government's "overriding duty is to protect the public".

Two new commissions to be set up this year will advise ministers on practical and ethical aspects of biotechnology, working alongside the new Food Standards Agency.

Food under the microscope
He added that: "Unrestricted commercial cultivation of GM crops will not proceed until we are satisfied that they cause no harm to the environment."

Immediate criticism

However, the Tory agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, attacked the government, saying it had "destroyed public confidence". He echoed calls from environmentalists for an "absolute moratorium" on herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops until field trials had been completed.

The BBC's Niall Dickson: Top government advisers have joined the charm offensive
Friends of the Earth (FoE) criticised the voluntary codes agreed with biotechnology companies as "meaningless". The Consumers' Association said there was "huge hole" in the government's report because it said nothing about food labelling.

Dr Cunningham announced the publication of several reports including one from the government's top medical and scientific advisors. This recommended a national surveillance unit to monitor any risk to health from GM food but added that the genetic technology used to modify food is not "inherently harmful".

Dr Jack Cunningham's statement to the House of Commons in full
Dr Cunningham said the current approach of case-by-case assessment is effective but that new guidelines to make the regulation process easier to understand would create a "rigorous and open safeguard."

Defending the biotechnology companies voluntary code of practice, Dr Cunningham said that legislation cannot be rushed through. He said the code is backed up by legally-binding contracts and "might well" form the basis of future legislation.

But Pete Riley, from FoE, said the government's announcement had done little to address the concerns of environmentalists. He said ministers were still engaged in the "commercialisation by stealth" of GM crops.

Pete Riley: The development of these crops is "commercialisation by stealth"
He said the two new commissions would only be effective if they relied on independent scientific advice rather than the data supplied by industry.

And Mr Riley insisted there was now an urgent need for new laws.

"Ministers say no crops will be grown until farm-scale trials are completed - that's going to be four years away - that is ample time for legislation," he said.

"No human guinea pigs"

The purpose of the proposed national surveillance unit was also criticised as simply monitoring the public as they ate GM food. But Geoff Rooker, the Food Safety Minister said: "The public will not be used as guinea pigs."

Sheila McKechnie: "Everyone wants food labelling"
On the labelling of GM food, Sheila McKechnie from the Consumer's Association recognised that it was difficult to get agreement for Europe-wide rules on labelling.

But she said there was nothing to stop the government introducing its own voluntary measures: "Consumer organisations want it, the companies want it, food manufacturers want it.

[ image: Monarch butterfly: killed by GM corn pollen]
Monarch butterfly: killed by GM corn pollen
"We put in proposals as part of this report and they have been ignored. That means the government is not actually listening to consumers' concerns."

The government's proposals were welcomed by the UK Food and Drink Federation: "We shall now have a clear regulatory framework based on the best scientific advice and against a background of intensive public consultation.

"The lethal mixture of sloppy science and overblown reporting has led to a crazy situation where a useful technology has almost been rejected by many consumers."

The government's reports on GM food and biotechnology follow a five-month consultation with 140 interested parties, a consultation with the public on biosciences and a report on public health aspects of GM food by the government's Chief Scientific Advisor and Chief Medical Officer.

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