EU vets have reached an agreement for a slight relaxation in the rules governing the accidental contamination of cargoes of feed materials with traces of GM varieties which have not been approved for use in the EU.

Until now, feed importers have had to reject entire shipments of things like soya and maize if they have contained even tiny traces of unapproved GMs, incurring additional costs on the whole food chain.

But, at a meeting in Brussels of the influential Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCOFCAH), member states have agreed to allow the accidental presence of up to 0.1% of unapproved GMs.

The NFU described the move – which will become EU law in three months’ time, so long as there are no objections from the EU council or European parliament – as a “step in the right direction.”

But it doubted it would have much impact on feed costs at farm level. “The change only applies to the presence of material for which EU import licences have been applied, but not yet approved,” explained NFU director of policy Martin Haworth.

“Increasingly, companies are simply not bothering to apply for licences in the EU – particularly for maize – since the process is long and costly and the major markets are in Asia not Europe.

“The new rules also only apply to imports destined for feed, not food, when you can’t always tell the final destination of maize.

“As GM acreages increase globally, and new varieties come onto the market, there needs to be a pragmatic and workable system in place. Unless we find an effective solution to this issue we risk making the whole of the European livestock industry uncompetitive over time.”

But the move towards any relaxation of the rules has been condemned by anti-GM group, GM Freeze.

Spokesman Pete Riley said the EU was caving in to the “exaggerated” claims of the food industry. “EU member states have failed to respect the wishes of their citizens, the majority of whom remain opposed to GM crops entering the food chain.”

NFU Scotland, however, described the move as “sensible thinking” by the EU.

“Until now, Europe’s zero tolerance approach had restricted feed imports from countries where non-EU approved GM crops were widely grown – most notably in North and South America,” said a spokesman. “Given that Europe needs to import almost 80% of its protein requirements for livestock from these countries, it is no wonder UK farming unions have campaigned for years to introduce a low level of tolerance.”