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Monday, February 15, 1999 Published at 17:51 GMT

UK Politics

Blair backs modified food

GM food is on the menu in 10 Downing Street

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has pitched himself into the centre of the "Frankenstein foods" row with a personal endorsement of the products.

In an unusual move, he ordered his spokesmen to express his "frustration" over the way the issue is being debated.

And he has revealed that he - and by implication his family - are happy to eat genetically modified food and that it is not banned from their menu.

He believes the foods, if properly approved, could be healthier, tastier and cheaper than their "natural" counterparts.

Downing Street spokesmen have been ordered to put out a robust line over the issue, stating: "The prime minister is very strongly of the view that this product is safe. He has no hesitation at all about saying that.

[ image: Tony Blair is trying to avoid the Gummer trap]
Tony Blair is trying to avoid the Gummer trap
"He does have a sense of frustration that the debate is not being conducted in as fully informed a manner as it could be," said one.

Gummer trap

The prime minister has been careful not to fall into the same trap as former Tory minister John Gummer, who was filmed attempting to feed a burger to his daughter to underline his view that beef was safe.

But his enthusiastic support for GM foods risks painting him in the same light.

The campaign against the foods is gaining ground and the prime minister is facing opposition not only from the media and the Tories, but even many in his own party.

His revelation that the official government caterers have not banned GM foods at such residences as Downing Street, Chequers and the foreign secretary's country home, Chevening, has put him at odds with the House of Commons.

The catering committee, headed by Labour MP Dennis Turner, banned GM foods months ago and is not about to change its mind.

Mr Turner, along with other Labour MPs like Joan Ruddock, has challenged the official government line and demanded an inquiry.

[ image: John Redwood: Demanding resignations and a moratorium]
John Redwood: Demanding resignations and a moratorium
The Tories, who apparently have learned their lesson from the salmonella in eggs and BSE scares, have also demanded action - and the sacking of two ministers.

Labelling bill

Shadow spokesman John Redwood has also published a draft bill calling for clearer labelling of all GM foods.

Against this storm of opposition and emotion - understandably encouraged by recollections of recent food scares - it is almost impossible for the facts to fight their way into the daylight.

On that basis alone, the pressure for a ban on GM foods will intensify and Mr Blair could find himself at the wrong end of public opinion.

The revelations that former Labour advisors are involved in helping the manufacturers of the foods and that ministers and officials have had numerous meetings with representatives of the industry only boost the feelings of unease.

Many MPs, notably Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, are convinced the government will eventually have to climb down over the issue.

But the prime minister has painted himself into a corner. If he is right and there is nothing to fear, then the government will have to launch an all-out campaign to counter the current fears.

If ministers fail to turn the tide of public opinion, Mr Blair could find himself at the sharp end of the sort of food scandal that did the Tories such damage.

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