June 3, 2002 – Vote in the EP’s Environment Committee on labelling and the traceability of GMO-food and animal feed.

Friends of the Earth wants to draw your attention to an important meeting of the European Parliament’s (EP) Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy. On 4 June this Committee will vote upon two proposals by the European Commission concerning the authorisation and labelling of genetically modified food and animal feed (1). To the Commission’s proposals more than 532 amendments have been tabled, indicating that genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in food and feed are still a hotly debated and controversial issue.

Since the Environment Committee will vote upon all 532 amendments it is expected that the vote will take more than two hours. After tomorrows vote the plenary of the European Parliament will vote again on (amendments to) the same proposals. This vote is expected in the beginning of July. Hence, tomorrow’s vote is not the final one, but will nevertheless be of importance because it will give an indication of the probable outcome of the parliamentary decision-making process on GM-food and feed labelling.

What is at stake?
The key-element in both proposals of the European Commission is a different approach to the labelling of food and feed derived from genetically modified organisms. Under the current legislation (Novel Food Regulation 258/97) only food-products in which genetically modified DNA or protein can be detected are subject to a labelling obligation. Consequently, many products derived from GMO’s, such as sugar, vegetable-oils and corn flour do not have to be labelled.

The Commission now proposes to change this situation and bring the labelling provisions for GM-food more in accordance with the general principles laid down in European food safety law. The most important of these principle is the traceability principle, which can be found in Regulation 178/2002/EC. If adopted , the Commission’s proposals will ensure traceability of GMO’s and of food and feed produced therefrom. It would mean that operators throughout the food-chain (eg farmers, transporters, processors, etc.) must inform the next operator that the product is produced from GMO’s. Such a traceability system will facilitate accurate consumer labelling, environmental monitoring and, if necessary, withdrawal of products.

If the traceability system is adopted by Parliament all food products produced from GMO’s would have to be labelled, also if genetically modified DNA or protein cannot be detected in the final products. The implication would be that many food-products derived from GMO’s (eg. vegetable oils and sugar) that don’t have to be labelled now would be subject to a labelling obligation in the future. The Commission also proposes to label animal feed, consisting of or produced from GMO’s. However, in the Commissions proposals consumer products (like milk, eggs and meat) that are derived from animals raised on GM-animal feed are excluded form the labelling provisions.

What amendments are tabled by the European Parliament?
In different Parliamentarian Committees several Members of the European Parliament (MEP’s) tabled 55 amendments pressing for the restriction of the labelling requirements and aiming at the removal of the Commissions proposals for a more comprehensive labelling system. Most of these amendments were drafted by Conservative MEP’s (EVP-ED) and by David Bowe, a Social Democratic MEP who is taking a dissident position in the PSE-fraction. The most important argument put forward by the EVP-ED-MEP’s and by Mr. Bowe is that only those products in which genetically modified DNA or protein can be detected through chemical tests should be subject to labelling. According to this MEP’s any other system is open to fraud.

However, this argument is countered by the European Commission by pointing at the fact that the traceability system is already laid down in European food law and is applied to many conventional products, such as fruits, vegetables and meat.

Another important group of amendments aims at an extension of the labelling regime as proposed by the Commission. These amendments ( 15 in total) call for labelling of food products derived from animals fed on GM-feed. Such amendments were tabled in different Parlementarian Commissions by Social Democratic and Green MEPs.

What is the expected outcome of tomorrow’s vote?
This is hard to predict. The vast majority of the Conservative MEPs are against the traceability and extended labelling as posed by the Commission. The vast majority of the Greens and the Socialists are in favour of such traceability. Moreover, they want to amend the Commission’s proposal and include food products, derived from animals fed with GM-feed in the compulsory labelling scheme.

Since the Conservatives on the one side and the Socialists/Greens on the other side more or less outbalance each other, everything depends on the smaller groups, in particular the Liberals (ELDR). They have 5 votes in the Committee and 52 votes in the plenary. Until now, the Liberals have not spoken with one voice. Some members take more or less the same position as the Socialists and the Greens, whereas others (like Dirk Sterckx from Belgium) have said recently and publicly that they have not yet made up their mind.

What is the relation to the EU-moratorium on GMOs?
In June 1999, when the so called ‘de facto’ moratorium on new marketing authorisations of GMOs entered into force, the countries supporting the moratorium (which at that stage were France, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Luxembourg) released a joint statement in which they urged the Commission  to submit “without delay full draft rules ensuring labelling and traceability of GMOs and GMO-derived products”. Also they five countries said that “pending the adoption of such rules, in accordance with preventive and precautionary principles, they will take steps to have any new authorisations for growing and placing on the market suspended.” Since 1999 Belgium and Germany have joined the ‘de facto’ moratorium on new marketing authorisations of GMOs. MEP’s that vote down the Commissions proposal for a traceability and comprehensive labelling system for GM-food run the risk that they will trigger a prolonging of the EU moratorium on new authorisations of GM-crops.

FOE’s position
Friends of the Earth thinks that the proposal of the European Commission to set up a system which will ensure traceability of GMOs and of food and feed produced therefrom, in order to facilitate accurate consumer labelling, environmental monitoring and, if necessary, withdrawal of products, is a very positive development. It would be a slap in the face of the European consumer and the environment if these proposals were rejected or watered down by the European Parliament.

Furthermore, Friends of the Earth believes that products derived from animals raised on GM-feed should also fall under the labelling regime. Friends of the Earth therefore support the amendments that call for the inclusion of these products in the labelling regime.

Whats’s next?
After the vote in the Environment Committee, the plenary of the European Parliament will vote on (the amendments to) the Commission’s proposals. This vote is currently scheduled for the beginning of July. After this vote the amended proposal goes to the Council, which will have to establish a common position by qualified majority. Then the Parliament examines the common position of the Council. If the Parliament approves this position by a majority of 314 votes or more, the act will be adopted. Parliament can also reject the common position of the Council by 314 votes or more. The third (and most likely) possibility is that the Parliament amends the position of the Council.

If the Council approves this amendments by qualified majority, the act is adopted. If the Council disapproves these amendments, there will be a conciliation procedure and the Commission will come up with a compromise. Subsequently this compromise proposal should be adopted by a qualified majority in the Council and by a majority of 314 votes or more in the Parliament. Both Parliament and the Council are under considerable pressure, since when no act is adopted a continuation of the ‘de facto’ moratorium is very likely.

Friends of the Earth has produced a detailed analysis of the amendments that will be voted upon in the Environment Committee tomorrow. This document is attached to this press-briefing. Also available (upon request) are two position papers about both proposals of the European Commission. A spokesperson from Friends of the Earth (for details, see below) will be available to comment on the outcome of the Environment Committee, which is expected around noon.

Geert Ritsema
European GMO Campaigner
Friends of the Earth Europe
Phone: + 32-2-5420182
Mobile: + 31-6-290 05 908

(1) These proposals are:
– Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms and traceability of food and feed products produced from genetically modified organisms COM (2001) 182 final – Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed COM (2001) 425 final.