Parliament GM produce: Safety pledge on sale of modified food

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT made a fresh attempt to reassure the public about genetically modified foods yesterday by declaring that consumer safety was its top priority.

Jeff Rooker, the Food minister, promised MPs that such foods would be clearly labelled with no "free-for-all" on the release of modified crops into the environment.

Answering an emergency question, Mr Rooker stressed that products such as tomato paste and soya were put on the market only after "careful scrutiny" of their health impact.

He said that much current public concern could have been avoided if the last government had forced American manufacturers to segregate GM from non-GM ingredients. He said that the Tories "missed the boat" by failing to secure agreement with the European Union to insist that the products were separated and labelled.

British retailers claim that they cannot identify modified soya products because supplies from the US use a mixture of GM and non-GM sources.

To the cheers of Labour backbenchers, Mr Rooker also revealed that GM- based tomato paste was approved by the Tories for sale in 1994, soya in 1995 and maize in 1996 and 1997.

The Government had opened up to public scrutiny the activities of its advisory panels on GM issues and was pressing the European Commission to label animal feeds as quickly as possible.

"We believe we have a robust system for ensuring that the consumer is fully protected. Above all it is the Government's first priority to ensure that the safety of consumers is fully protected," Mr Rooker said. He condemned recent press "scare stories" about the issue and claimed that biotechnology development had "huge potential" to benefit society.

However, the Tory agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo, said that public confidence over the issue was being damaged by government "mishandling".

He said the only way to restore public confidence was to recognise the risks and have ministers whose "independence and integrity" could be relied on.

He demanded to know whether Tony Blair had come under pressure from President Bill Clinton to help out Monsanto, the American biotech giant that has led the controversial field, and called for a three-year delay before herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops were planted on a commercial basis.

"A Government that gets its friends to suppress the publication of inconvenient research findings, accepts sponsorship from companies involved in promoting the commercial growth of GM crops and refuses to publish the advice it receives on this sensitive issue doesn't deserve the public's trust," he said.

Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat food spokesman, called for effective labelling, which he said was crucial to allow the public and British retailers to make decisions.