However, ministerial embarrassment over the issue deepened when Marks & Spencer became the latest food giant to announce it was removing the substance from all its own-brand products.
Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, moved to deny reports that the Government had agreed a voluntary, three-year moratorium with the biotechnology industry.
But within hours of Mr Meacher's statement, M&S said that it was imposing its own ban in response to customer concern that GM technology was moving "too quickly".
The food and clothing chain, one of the leaders in the booming market in "cook-chill" ready meals, said that GM ingredients would be removed from all St Michael food products "as quickly as possible".
It joins Iceland and Waitrose supermarket chains, both of which have stated that they will phase out GM ingredients from their own brands.
Both Mr Meacher and Downing Street dismissed speculation that civil servants had drawn up a deal with the companies at the centre of GM research such as Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca. Mr Meacher insisted that the Government had not changed the terms of the current two-year voluntary ban on commercial planting that was negotiated with the firms last October.
He confirmed that the current agreement with the biotech firms will run out in spring 2000, but added that it could be extended if there was insufficient evidence to back safe commercial planting.
Regulating the commercial production of GM food will cost the taxpayer pounds 5m this year, including pounds 3.7m on research, the Agriculture minister Lord Donoughue disclosed. He added that 74 people were working on policy development, research co-ordination and regulatory functions related to GM food.Reuse content