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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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."
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.
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.