31 August 1999
Brown blames BSE for GM worries
By Boyd Champness
AGRICULTURE minister Nick Brown believes that the BSE crisis is to blame for consumer worries about the safety of genetically modified (GM) food.
Mr Brown said that the BSE crisis had enlivened British consumers to question the quality of their food – and whether GM food is safe – like never before.
His comments, which were made during a recent trip to Australia, were reported by the Australian newspaper Stock and Land.
“I dont think the debate about these issues has been particularly balanced in the UK,” Mr Brown told the paper.
“But its more than that, I think the recent BSE crisis has set the background for this. People want food products that are absolutely assured, safe and natural.”
Mr Brown played down images of white-suited protestors destroying GM trials but admitted there was a general feeling of “disquiet” in Britain over GM food.
He said the government had tried to give the public as firm a guarantee as possible by introducing legislation to set up a new Food Standards Agency.
The agency will bring together under the one roof all the governments food safety operations.
The government believes it will be a source of independent and professional advice for both the government and the public.
In addition, Mr Brown said the UKs regulatory regime was as strict as possible and only four GM food products had so far been approved for general use.
“They are safe within the conventional meaning of the term,” he told Stock and Land.
“Thats the professional advice the government has and yet the public is still unsure.”
Mr Brown attacked the emotive tactics used by GM protestors who often dress in white anti-contamination suits for the media as they trash GM trial plots.
He said the purpose of the trial plots was to determine what effect the GM crops may have on the surrounding environment.
“There is an argument that GM crops may cross-pollinate with neighbouring non-GM crops and thus have an unexpected effect on the environment,” he said.
“So before authorising farm-scale production the British Government wants to test what the effect is.
“Its an environmental policy, its not a food safety issue. The food is safe.”
Nevertheless, Mr Brown told the Stock and Land that consumers deserved to have a real choice over whether or not they bought GM food.
The only way to do this was through a sound and informative labelling policy – something Australia is still coming to terms with.
In the UK, all GM foods must be labelled as such and the restaurant and catering industry must reveal whether they use GM ingredients in their foods.
But Mr Brown said the UK was still grappling with the problems caused by the lack of segregation of GM and non-GM ingredients such as maize and soybeans.
“The questioning of GMOs in the UK is very much consumer-led and so any democratic government has to give people the right to choose and that means labelling,” he told the paper.
Mr Brown acknowledged that the question remained over how to label food products that may or may not contain GM ingredients.
“There is a debate about whether one should in those circumstances use the phrase may contain GMOs,” he said.
“That debate is still not resolved yet in the European Union.”