Councils ban GM food in schools

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COUNCILS ARE to ban genetically modified foods from schools, old people's homes and town hall canteens today for up to five years.

A decision by the Local Government Association - which represents 450 authorities in England and Wales - to impose a ban until 2004, or until GM foods can be proved to be safe, would severely undermine recent claims by Tony Blair and other ministers that the public has nothing to fear.

The association, which is dominated by Labour authorities and covers 26,000 schools, is expected to approve the move at its public protection committee meeting today. Councils were quick to ban beef products from school canteens during the BSE scare.

In a statement issued last night, a spokesman for the association said that until it had received reassurance about GM food safety, it would recommend that no school, old people's home, children's home or local authority would use or serve it. "As a major buyer and supplier of food, councils should be very cautious on behalf of the public, many of whom are vulnerable, such as small children and the elderly," he said.

"Because of the uncertainty surrounding GM food, we urge the Government to fully pursue the precautionary principle with regard to this technology. We want the public to be fully involved in any decision on the use and regulation of these foodstuffs. European Union rules state that only some genetic foods need to be labelled, but the British public are clear that they want to know about every product that contains GM food."

He added: "Despite the advice of some people, the public's confidence in GM food is so low at the moment that councils would be well advised to follow our recommendation and stop using GM foods until proper scientific investigations have been carried out.

"As community leaders, local authorities have a responsibility to listen to people's worries and take measures to restore the public's confidence at all costs."

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said councils were "perfectly entitled" to take such a decision. "The Government has made clear that all GM foods in the food chain have been approved as safe. Therefore there is no need to take any action to avoid eating GM foods. However, if the local authorities wish to do so, then that is their choice."

Scientists on the key committee that oversees trials of genetically modified crops are angry at plans by the Environment minister Michael Meacher to replace almost all of them at once.

Members of the 13-member Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (Acre) have written to Mr Meacher to protest that his plan, leaked last week, will weaken their combined experience and expertise.

Dr Julian Kinderlerer, of the University of Sheffield's biology and biotechnology department, who has been on Acre since its inception in 1992, told The Independent: "It is all very well knowing the theoretical analysis of a crop's risks. But you need someone who can point out that it will be farmed by two men pushing a wheelbarrow, neither of whom cares about genetic release."

But Acre's critics say it has never turned down any application for GM crop trials.