GENTECH archive


More INDEPENDENT menu on Frankenfoods

SUNDAY INDEPENDENT  February 21, 1999

GM foods - Revealed: false data
misled farmers

By Marie Woolf

Monsanto, the genetic engineering company, included false information
about a genetically engineered crop it wants to sell in a safety
assessment submitted to government advisers.

The gene giant was forced to carry out its research again after it emerged
last month that crucial information about the gene it proposed to put in a
new strain of maize was incorrect.

Monsanto was labelled "incompetent" by scientists from the Government's
influential Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment (Acre).
The committee accused Monsanto of submitting sloppy research, "poor
interpretation" and work far below required standards.

The agro-chemical company misdefined the gene it planned to insert into
the maize which was genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto's
Roundup herbicide. Minutes of Acre's meeting last month show that members
were furious that Monsanto had asked them to approve a marketing
application based on inaccurate information. Sources close to the meeting
say Monsanto was called "incompetent" and that the standard of its work
was "wholly unacceptable".

Acre told Monsanto to do its research again after Monsanto scientists -
asked for clarification about their research - realised that their
"molecular data . did not support the conclusions".

The minutes of the meeting, on 13 January 1999, deliver a sharp rebuke to
Monsanto, saying that ". the molecular data submitted by the applicant did
not support the conclusions regarding genomic organisation of the

The Monsanto application was last month approved by the UK after the
company spent several months redoing its research and scientists concluded
that the GM maize would not harm human or animal health. It will now be
submitted to other European countries for assessment.

But the decision to grant approval has proved controversial with other
scientists who say that it casts doubt on other work carried out by

"It's very worrying. This means that somebody somewhere in Monsanto is
getting it wrong," said Janey White, a molecular biologist.

The mistake also has international implications because Monsanto's maize
is already grown in America and will soon be sold around the world.

Monsanto has had to tell regulatory authorities in Japan and Europe, now
considering an application to sell the GM maize, that its data is
incorrect. The same GM maize is exported widely from America and is
believed to be used in food sold in Britain. "It is our policy to advise
all the relevant authorities of any new information," said Alistair
Clemence, regulatory affairs manager for maize in Europe. "We haven't
totally messed up, but there was a certain part of the gene sequence we
hadn't defined properly."

Licences to sell and plant GM crops in Britain are based on work done by
the agrochemical companies themselves and not on independent tests carried
out by the Government.

The Ios/NOP Poll results

Q1: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way the Government has
handled the whole issue of genetically modified food?

Very satisfied 4 %

Fairly satisfied 17%

Neither 16%

Fairly dissatisfied 29%

Very dissatisfied 30%

Q2: Would you personally be happy to eat genetically modified food or
would you be worried about eating it?

Happy 27%

Worried 68%

Q3: Do you think it should be compulsory for all products containing
genetically modified food to be clearly labelled to show this, or is this
not necessary?

Label 96%

Not necessary 4%

Q4: Do you think firms should carry on producing genetically modified
foods or should there be a temporary ban until more research is done into
how safe it is?

Carry on 19%

Ban 77%

NOP interviewed a representative sample of 501 adults across Great Britain
by telephone on 18 February.

SUNDAY INDEPENDENT  February 21, 1999

GM foods - Revealed: it's not all labelled

By Marie Woolf, Political Correspondent

Genetically modified food is being sold illegally in Britain without
labels, a survey by the Independent on Sunday has found. Unwitting
shoppers are buying ready-made meals and snacks - from breakfast cereals
to tortilla chips - which do not mention that they contain genetically
modified products.

Trading standards officers from around the country have been carrying out
random tests on food to see if labelling laws, which state that GM
ingredients should be identified on the packet, are being followed.

About a third of tests carried out for trading standards departments
revealed food containing unidentified GM ingredi- ents. Many apparently
GM-free snacks and meals, particularly ones sold as health foods, were
found with GM ingredients.

The Independent on Sunday is campaigning for clear, accurate labelling on
all GM foods, and the results of this survey have prompted food groups and
MPs to call for labelling and tougher testing. "Consumers have been
promised that food containing GM ingredients will be labelled, but here is
evidence that companies are not following the law," said Sue Dibb of the
Food Commission. "Companies have no excuse for this."

In East Sussex, council tests on food containing maize and soya found two
brands of toffee-covered popcorn contained GM soya in the ingredients
although the labels suggested that the snacks were "GM-free".

At Denbigh in North Wales, soya mince sold with no GM label was found to
contain engineered soya.

In Oxfordshire, trading standards officers took 20 samples of products
containing conventional maize and soya. They found that four out of 10
"GM-free" soya products, including bacon-flavour soya chips, soya-bean
curd and textured soya protein, had genetically modified soya beans. Their
tests also showed that three out of 10 randomly tested foods containing
maize, which did not include a GM label, had GM ingredients. One was a
brand of tortilla chips containing maize grown in the United States.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "We can have
no confidence in the labelling of GM food. The Government really must act
to ensure that labelling is based on what goes in the food so the
consumers can have confidence in what they are eating."

In Britain, under European Union law, all foods containing GM ingredients
are supposed to be labelled. But, because the Government has not yet
finalised its own labelling regulations, there are no penalties in force
for companies that break the law.

"We believe in consumers exercising an informed choice and consumers
should have accurate information and the ability to exercise that choice,"
said Alan Street, chief executive of the Institute of Trading Standards.

The tests were carried out for trading standards departments by public
laboratories, including the Central Scientific Laboratory run by the
Ministry of Agriculture, which have devised a way of detecting genetically
modified DNA.

SUNDAY INDEPENDENT  February 21, 1999

         GM foods - Government shifts ground

         The story so far

FIRST blood went last week to the Independent on Sunday's campaign on
genetically modified food, when the Government effectively met one of the
campaign's two main objectives.

On Thursday - after a week of extraordinary public outcry - the
Environment minister, Michael Meacher, conceded the principle of an
indefinite moratorium on commercial plantings of GM crops. He is also to
reconstitute the much-criticised official committee that has given
permission for planting more than 400 trial sites with the crops all over

Since we launched our campaign two weeks ago - calling for a freeze on
developing GM crops, and clear labelling of all foods with GM ingredients
- the issue has dominated the news and thrown the Government into

The Cabinet "enforcer", Jack Cunningham, has tried repeatedly - and
unsuccessfully - to reassure the public that the Government is in control
of the development of GM crops. The Prime Minister put his own authority
at stake by declaring that he ate GM foods, only to fail to quieten the

The week ended with the remarkable development of five Cabinet ministers
having to write a five-page letter to every Labour MP to protest that,
despite increasing accusations of bowing to big business, "the
Government's first responsibility is to protect consumers and the

Increasing evidence emerged of Labour's links with the GM food industry,
and the Tories - looking like an opposition for just about the first time
since the general election - demanded Lord Sainsbury's resignation as
Science minister on the grounds of conflict of interest.

Details of several reports emerged too. The biotechnology unit of the
Department of the Environment warned that GM crops could wipe out birds,
plants and animals; the Government's advisory committee on foods predicted
that antibiotic-resistant genes in the crops could escape into the
environment; and the Royal Society urged a closer look at regulations
covering weedkiller-resistant GM crops, to avoid the spawning of

Controversy raged over the findings of the researcher Arpad Pusztai, who
was forced into retirement after saying that GM potatoes had harmed
laboratory rats; Monsanto was fined #17,000 for breaking rules on planting
GM crops; and Greenpeace activists were arrested for protesting at the
importing of GM soya at Liverpool.

Michael Meacher - one of the few ministers sceptical about the crops, and
perhaps the only one to see the crisis coming - managed to steer his part
of the Government into relatively secure waters.

He has long wanted - as English Nature, the Government's official wildlife
watchdog, has advised - to halt the commercial planting of GM crops until
the risks of their genes contaminating other plants had been fully
studied. On Thursday he gave a categorical assurance that the crops would
not be grown commercially until the Government was satisfied that there
was no danger.

He could not officially call this a moratorium, nor put a number of years
on it, because the Prime Minister had explicitly ruled this out. But his
announcement amounts to an indefinite halt, meeting one of our campaign's

He also took the opportunity to re-form the Advisory Committee on Releases
to the Environment (Acre), the body that decides whether plantings should
take place. He has long been dissatisfied with the committee: a majority
of its members have links with the biotechnology industry and it has never
turned down a single application.

Now the committee is to be reconstituted with a much broader membership
and a subgroup is to be set up, with representatives from English Nature
and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to study the effects of
GM crops on wildlife.

No such reform, however, is planned at the Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food (Maff), where a majority of the members of the Advisory
Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which carries out checks, have
links either personally or institutionally with the food industry. When a
"consumer representative" was appointed to the committee last year, Maff
rejected a sceptic on GM foods from the Consumers' Association in favour
of the wife of a board member of the chemical company Boots.

The committee commissions no independent work of its own into crops or
foods, and relies mainly on information provided by the companies
themselves. And, under special "simplified procedures", a GM food is
presumed to be safe, and no further assessment is required, if a company
can persuade the committee that it is "substantially equivalent" to its
normal counterpart.

Critics say that this comparison would not pick up all the effects of
genetic modification, and would not, for example, have detected the prion
in the sheep offal fed to cattle that caused BSE.

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