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Wednesday, March 17, 1999 Published at 23:05 GMT


Accusations fly over GM food fears

GM giants showed "lack of consideration" for public fears

A government advisory panel has blamed genetically-modified (GM) food companies and the European Commission (EC) for growing public fears about GM products

Food under the microscope
The Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) said the biotechnology companies picked the wrong products on which to pioneer GM technology.

'Lack of concern'

The chairman, Professor John Beringer, said in ACRE's annual report that it is "incomprehensible" that the first fruits of a "new and potentially very frightening technology" were herbicide-tolerant crops.

He said he believed the GM crops on the market pose no greater threat to safety than traditional varieties.

[ image: Supermarkets are promising unmodified foods]
Supermarkets are promising unmodified foods
But this view "is not taken by many groups that claim to represent the public opinion", he said.

And in a written reply to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he blamed the EC for handling applications to market GM products in an "extraordinarily inefficient way".

This led to long delays in getting new processes approved and engendered a "climate in which the public perceives there are serious risks", he said.

He said bigger trials were needed in Britain, not to prove safety - which he did not think was a problem - but to give "confidence".

'Britons not stupid'

The head of another government advisory panel on GM foods has denied that she thought Britons were too ill-informed to be given the choice over whether to eat them.

Janet Bainbridge, head of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, told a cross-party parliament committee. "I have always stood for public education and clear labelling."

Two weeks ago, the boss of frozen-food chain Iceland said Ms Bainbridge had told him: "The average person has not got the least understanding about GM food. Why should we give them a choice?"

"I refute that absolutely categorically," said Ms Bainbridge.

Supermarkets lead fight

But supermarkets have been quick to acknowledge public alarm about GM foods.

On Wednesday, Safeway strengthened its stance against GM technology, saying it would replace any GM ingredients in Safeway products.

This followed Sainsbury's announcement that it had set up a consortium of European supermarkets to ensure no genetically altered ingredients make it into their own-label products.

Marks & Spencer has also said it will stop selling genetically modified food. Asda has said it wants its own-label range of products to be free of modified ingredients, and Tesco said it will clearly label GM products.

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