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Europe says GM-free food labels need not tell truth

Europe agreed yesterday to allow food to contain up to 1 per cent of genetically modified material while still being labelled as GM-free.

Europe agreed yesterday to allow food to contain up to 1 per cent of genetically modified material while still being labelled as GM-free.

The deal, agreed by a majority in an EU committee last night, came despite objections from two countries which argued that the threshold should be set much lower, perhaps at a level of 0.1 per cent.

The EU's standing committee on foodstuffs also agreed to apply the measures on GM-free food labelling to suppliers.

However moves to extend the same regulations and a similar labelling regime to foods marketed as additive or flavour-free were provoking more opposition last night.

Yesterday's decision was taken despite the fact that some big retailers, including Marks & Spencer, have already adopted a much lower threshold.

Environmental and consumer groups in the UK had been converging around the idea of a threshold of 0.1 per cent. But at yesterday's discussion Britain backed the 1 per cent ceiling, although it was in favour of reviewing the situation after a given period.

The European Commission argued that it already keeps the situation under review and, when the vote was taken, only Spain abstained although Portugal had earlier voiced doubts.

Under the agreed procedures the Commission can now bring forward a regulation bringing the measure into force without referring the issue back to the Council of Ministers.

The decision on additives and flavourings proved more divisive, with Ireland, Spain and France opposing.

Harry Hadaway, GM campaigner with the Soil Association, condemned the decision as a "licence to pollute" and said that the Government had gone against the public's wishes.

"This will not be good enough for consumers who want GM-free to mean what it says," he said. "The market will demand 100 per cent GM-free no matter what the EU decides. Retailers have realised this and their approach of starting at 0.1 per cent and trying to go to zero is much more more sensible."

Doug Parr, the campaigns director of Greenpeace, said no account had been taken of GM crops in animal feeds. "If consumers are concerned about the environment they should demand only animal products that have been fed on GM-free foodstuffs. Since the EU is not meeting consumer aspirations it is up to the supermarkets to fill the gap."

But a spokesman for the Government's GM Unit insisted that the 1 per cent limit applied to each ingredient, which would equate to a lower level in a finished product except in cases of single ingredient foods such as whole soya beans or popcorn.

"This is to protect restaurateurs and others required to label products, so that if they have made every effort to be GM-free but if there has been some accident, a GM content of up to 1 per cent in an ingredient will be tolerated."