GM crops enter food chain by back door

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ANIMAL FEED for cows, pigs and chickens containing genetically modified crops is about to go on the market, raising fears in Whitehall of another BSE-style health crisis.

Government officials, environmental groups and scientists believe that genetically modified DNA from the animal feed could pass though the food chain to humans, with unknown effects.

They also say that consumers will be denied the opportunity to avoid GM food, as there are no laws saying that meat or milk containing the product must be labelled as such.

Earlier this month, Monsanto, the biotechnology giant, applied for government approval to sell two new GM ingredients to animal feed producers in Britain. Its applications, one for GM cotton and the other for GM corn for specified use in animal fodder, were considered by government advisers.

Insiders said that officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) animal feed desk, which dealt with the BSE crisis, were "very worried indeed" when the applications came before the Maff approval committee.

They called for more "toxicology tests" on Monsanto's GM cotton and have privately expressed fears about unknown implications of using it as feed.

"Maff officials wanted full toxicology tests on the cotton," said a source from the meeting. "They were very concerned and agitated. They are not happy and they have been saying so privately."

Sources close to the committee have confirmed that Monsanto is about to be given the green light to sell GM maize to animal feed producers in Britain.

Some scientists, however, say that by the time the meat and milk is consumed by humans, the DNA will have broken down and only infinitesimal quantities will remain.

"The truth is that no one has any idea whether the GM organisms fed to animals pose dangers to human health," said Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association. "But surely the very least the consumer should have is the right to choose whether they consume these products or not."

The crisis comes in the week the Government is to announce the setting up of a Food Standards Agency, which will preside over food safety, including that of GM food. Supermarkets, pubs, and shops will all be expected to pay a flat rate of pounds 90 each in a food "poll tax" under plans which will go out for consultation this week.

Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, recently said at an organic food conference that people should be able to choose whether to eat GM food.

Already, two varieties of Monsanto's genetically modified corn and soya have been approved for general consumption by humans and animals in Europe. It is not known whether they are yet being used in animal feed.

Nervous farmers, who had to destroy generations of cattle because of the BSE crisis, have begun asking feed companies whether the processed food contains GM ingredients.

A spokesman for the National Farmers Union said: "Farmers are asking what is in the feed; it's a big problem. There is certainly concern among farmers who don't want to use GM crops in their feed."

At the same time, the Government is funding new research into genetically modifying the grass that cows and sheep graze on. The scientists in charge admit that there are public concerns about feeding GM products to cattle and say that a vital part of their work is assessing potential risks.

"We are doing some work on genetically engineering grasses. We are looking at changing their digestibility," said a spokesman for the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research. "We can't theoretically see problems with feeding genetically manipulated crops to humans, but we have to realise that the public is worried."

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