GM maize is found in baby foods

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THE US baby-food giant, Gerber, is rethinking its buying strategy after the environmental organisation, Greenpeace, discovered GM maize in its children's cereal products and made its findings public. The company said it will buy only "organic" maize from now on and will use the absence of GM grains as a marketing aid.

Gerber's action, disclosed by The Wall Street Journal, is the result of an inquiry to the company from Charles Margulis, a Greenpeace campaigner living in New York. Two months ago, he faxed a letter to Gerber's chief executive officer, asking whether the company used GM products in its baby food. If so, which products? and "what steps have you taken, if any, to ensure you are not using" GM ingredients? He asked for a reply within five business days.

Mr Margulis did not get his reply. But what followed, according to The Wall Street Journal, was a frenzied response that penetrated to the top of Gerber's parent company, the Swiss conglomerate, Novartis, in the space of four weeks and a change of policy affecting an established product worth $1bn (pounds 625m) in annual sales.

Now, Gerber is abandoning some of its long-standing maize and soya bean suppliers. This will increase costs - both in broken contracts and the purchase of more expensive organic replacements. But baby food, as Greenpeace well understands, is an especially emotive issue.

The president of Novartis's US consumer health operation, Al Piergallini, said: "I have got to listen to my customers. So, if there is an issue, or even an inkling of an issue, I am going to make amends. We have to act pre-emptively." Whether Gerber will label the resulting products "GM- free" is another matter, however.

The view of the US Food and Drug Administration, which has approved licences for specific GM crops, is that they are safe and a potential boon to farmers and consumers alike. This assessment is now enshrined as official US policy.

But middle-class consumers are now asking whether they should not be worried about GM produce if Europeans feel so strongly about it, and American farmers, persuaded by manufacturers that GM seed will increase yields and reduce costs, now fear they could be landed with crops they cannot export at a time when agricultural prices are falling.

The first chink in the US adminstration's armour of confidence came last month when the Agriculture Secretary, Dan Glickman, announced extra regional monitoring of GM crops and a review of licensing procedures. While the pharmaceutical industry professed itself unconcerned, it is still adamantly opposed to labelling GM products as such. Indeed, the pervasiveness of GM soya and maize in the US make labelling almost impossible: there are so few products that can be guaranteed GM-free.

To establish that Gerber baby food contained GM produce, Greenpeace had to send samples to a laboratory in Britain. It was found that processed food in jars did not contain GM elements, but that the dry cereal did. With no response from Gerber by then, Greenpeace made the results public.