David Evans

THE HAGUE, Jan 21 (Reuters) - U.S. exporters are ready to meet the European Union's new one percent threshold on labelling food containing genetically modified organisms, although the system may actually heighten consumer fears, a top U.S. trade official said on Friday.

EU rules forcing food producers to label their products as containing GMOs if they cannot guarantee each of the ingredients contains less than one percent of GM material came into force earlier this month.

They do not provide for a ``GM-free'' label as separate rules are still being drafted on how to define GM-free.

``Our companies are prepared to meet the one percent threshold for incidental contamination by genetically modified material,'' U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce David Aaron told a biotechnology conference. But he said the rules were open to alarmist media stories or claims from individual scientists or lobby groups that products without labels had in fact breached the ceiling.

Unless testing methods were improved, ``labelling will actually undermine confidence in products, in government, and in the regulatory process. It will add to, not reduce, public concern,'' Aaron said.''


But European food safety commissioner David Byrne insisted consumers had a right to know what they were eating and that labelling of GM products was ``a cornerstone'' in getting the new GM products widely accepted.

The European Commission has pledged to review the one percent threshold in a year's time to see if improved testing procedures make it possible to set a lower level.

Byrne told the two-day conference, sponsored by the U.S. government, his recently presented food policy paper, including a blueprint for new food safety authority, showed the EU was ``acutely aware of the need to have a coherent and predictable framework on GMO foods, animal feeds and seeds.''

Whereas Aaron highlighted the fact that the consumption of GMOs has never been linked to any ailment or disease, Byrne said European reluctance was based on a view that biotechnology had little to offer the food consumer.

``It has to be recognised that most GMOs currently on the market are not targeted to deliver clear benefits for the consumer, rather to provide benefits for producers,'' he said.


Aaron said the new EU agency did not go far enough for the U.S., which would have preferred a more powerful regulatory body similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

``We are intrigued by the proposals...but disappointed so far that its scope would be limited to analysis,'' he said, adding that he believed that a loss of consumers' trust in the way food production is controlled was the prime reason for European scepticism over GMOs.

And he criticised the EU's stalled GM approval process, which it says has damaged the biotech industry in the United States, the world's largest grower of GM crops.

``The product approval system has effectively broken down,'' Aaron said, adding that the delay in authorisations ``amounts to an eternity when we consider how rapidly biotech products are developing.''

EU Appeals for Better Food Labeling

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - Leading European health officials repeated calls Friday for the labeling of genetically modified foods, saying measures need to be taken to gain public support on the sensitive food-safety issue.

In an appeal at a biotechnology conference in The Hague, David Byrne, the European Union's commissioner for health and consumer protection, said Europeans consider safety ``the most important ingredient of their food'' and demand information about what they're eating.

Speaking at the conclusion of the two-day, U.S.-sponsored meeting, Byrne said consumers have ``consistently demanded that foods be labeled ... in order to make an informed choice.''

A legal framework for genetically modified products is being hammered out by European legislators to ensure that consumers are provided with ``clear information and a choice between products,'' Byrne said.

The commission already has approved rules that would require companies to label foods when genetically modified ingredients make up more than 1 percent of the total.

In cases where scientific evidence is ``insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain'' in assessing genetically modified foods, measures should be based on the World Trade Organization guidelines, Byrne said.

He said that in order for biotechnology and genetically modified products to prosper, consumers need to given a free choice and complete information.

The United States has opposed labeling, insisting that genetically modified crops are essentially the same as conventionally bred varieties and pose no threat to humans or the environment.

Among major American exports that have been genetically modified are corn and soybeans. Genetic engineering involves splicing a single gene from one organism to another.

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