Britain braced for flood of genetically-altered food

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The food industry has bowed to pressure from American agro-chemical giants and called off attempts to stop a vast increase in genetically- modified food coming into Britain. By the end of next year almost all our imported soya will be bred to resist weed-killer. Fran Abrams found deep fears among consumer groups.

At a meeting with the agriculture minister Jeff Rooker last month, the British Retail Consortium announced that it was giving up the fight for modified soya to be separated from non-modified varieties. Supermarkets will now go ahead with a labelling scheme and a publicity drive to persuade shoppers the food is safe.

The Consumers' Association attacked the decision, arguing that it plunged the whole nation into uncharted territory.

Julie Sheppard, the association's public affairs officer, was at last month's meeting. "If you don't have segregation you won't be able to trace genetically-modified ingredients in foods, and if you can't trace them how are you going to monitor them?" she asked.

Soya is used in 60 per cent of processed goods, ranging from chocolate to baby food. At present only a quarter of the soya that comes to Britain from the United States, our main supplier, is modified. The proportion will increase to 60 per cent this year and 90 per cent next year.

Last night Mr Rooker admitted the Government had "missed the boat" on the issue and said if Labour had been in power 18 months ago it might have been able to taker a stronger line in calling for segregation of the products. However it had been able to insist that foods containing them were labelled.

He has asked officials to look for ways to monitor the foods despite the difficulties in doing so.

"We need surveillance, monitoring and research so that we can assist consumers in having information and keep watch for any remote problem with these foods," he said.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, argues that the Government should back a test case to establish Britain's right to insist on the segregation of genetically-modified goods.

"Nobody is being asked whether they want this. It is a hidden revolution which we have not voted for," he said.

Ann Grain, spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium, which represents 90 per cent of all UK retailers, said it would prefer modified grain to be separated but now planned to label all food containing soya as having the modified kind in it.

"The difference is that in the States they trust the Food and Drink Administration. Over here, because of the crises we have had there is a general distrust. Retailers have got to gain consumer trust on this," she said.

Some food chains are resisting the moves, though. Iceland, the freezer store chain, has announced it will buy non-modified soya from remaining sources in the US. A group of 44 wholefood retailers have started a "Wholefoods Against Genetix Foods" campaign.

Iceland's chairman Malcolm Walker, a long-term member of Greenpeace, said he had had hundreds of letters from customers who were "confused and concerned" about the issue.