Schools cut out genetically modified foods

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 1,300 schools in six council areas have taken genetically modified (GM) foods off their menus in the past few months. Two other councils, with hundreds of schools in their care, are expected to join them soon, as public debate about GM foods grows.

The move, which originated at Kent County Council, stems from the concerns of one of the biggest school meals caterers that food provided to schools should meet "the highest standards of safety".

It has imposed the anti-GM recipe on all the 1,308 schools it caters for in Kent, Sandwell Borough Council, Essex, and Durham county councils, andLewisham borough in London.

Devon and Oxfordshire are also considering similar moves, which would exclude any food labelled as containing genetically altered components from school lunches.

Eventually, that could mean taking some standard fare, such as bread and biscuits off lunch menus, as they use soya grown in the United States which is mixed with genetically modified strains.

But the decision was described as "unnecessary" by a spokesman for Monsanto, the biotechnology company which makes the most widely used GM component, soya beans which are resistant to the company's herbicide Roundup.

"No novel food like this can go on for sale until it has been approved by seven government committees, four different departments and been approved by ministers from 15 countries," the spokesman said. "We are confident that it is safe to eat." Monsanto now intends to try to persuade Chartwell, the catering company which supplies the schools, to change its policy.

The news comes amid intensifying debate over GM foods and crops. Earlier this month the Prince of Walesspoke out against the technology. Recent polls have also shown that opposition among the public to genetically engineered foods has grown in the past 18 months: 58 per cent opposed it in a recent MORI poll, while only 22 per cent supported it.

However, Chartwell said yesterday that it is very difficult to ensure that no GM component enters food.

"The problem is to identify GM products, because there's no legal requirement to label products that have been made from genetically modified material," said a spokeswoman. "Our policy is that we would not knowingly use GM food."

The councils hope that they will be able to use their combined weight to pressure the Government to label foods containing modified components. Oxford City Council has written to the Government asking ministers to ensure that GM crops are segregated from standard ones.

The principal difficulty is with foods made with soya or its extracts. In the US this year, farmers have more than doubled their plantings of genetically modified soya and maize. Soya from the Monsanto company, genetically engineered to be resistant to the company's Roundup herbicide, now makes up 30 per cent of plantings - up from a couple of per cent in 1996, when the crop was first marketed.

Soya and soya oils are now used in about 40 per cent of standard foodstuffs such as biscuits, bread and cakes.

However, American soya growers do not separate the modified versions from the natural strains, meaning that most of the supply from the US, the world's largest soya grower, is intermingled.

Government proposals to label foods as "potentially containing" genetically modified components have received a mixed response.