Under the Food Safety Act 1990, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety of any new foods they sell. But they are not obliged by law to inform the Government's committee of experts - the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) - about new products.
ICI, which has genetically engineered tomatoes to stop them going squashy, signed deals with several Californian biotechnology and food processing companies this month to help develop its modified tomatoes for sale as fresh fruit and in purees and concentrates. It has not applied for approval by the ACNFP, but would expect to do so perhaps a year before sales start in the UK.
The fear is that less scrupulous manufacturers might attempt to slip products on to the market without the committee's approval. But Professor Derek Burke, chairman of the committee, said at the launch of its annual report yesterday: 'That's the theoretical way . . . in practice we are saying it doesn't seem to be happening. It's not in the interests of a big supplier or a big supermarket store to get caught unawares.
'It (the ketchup) would be a novel food and the safety assessment would come to us. My impression of ICI is that they are absolutely meticulous. They are the last company who would pull a fast one.'
A spokesman for ICI said it hoped to begin trials of its squash- free tomatoes next summer, probably in southern Europe. It was not expecting ketchups from tomatoes grown in the US to reach British supermarkets for another four years. ICI had volunteered information to the ACNFP throughout the development of its tomatoes.
Professor Burke said he was happy with the voluntary process by which innovatory food products came to his committee's attention. He saw no need to make the process obligatory.
Helen Millar, a recently appointed 'consumer' member of the committee, said yesterday that the process was 'not absolutely satisfactory'. But Professor Burke said: 'The question is how assertive or intrusive the committee ought to be.'
During the year covered by the report, the committee examined a range of novel foods. This included oil from passion fruit seeds and pre-packed meals sterilised by ohmic heating - an alternating electric current.
Ministers are expected to respond 'soon' to the committee's advice, given more than a year ago, on the use of meat from animals that are used in experiments in which extra foreign genes are added to embryos. The committee said there was no food safety reason why meat from animals that failed to take up the foreign genes should not be eaten. But it advised the Government to consider public concerns over the moral and ethical issues of the food use of these animals.
1991 Annual report of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes; ACNFP Secretariat, Rm 604, Department of Health, Eileen House, 80-94 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6EF.