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Commission Launches European Network of GMO Laboratories to Improve Traceability in Food Chain

December 4, 2002

Source: The European Commission

European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin today inaugurated the European network of genetically modified organism (GMO) laboratories at a launch in Brussels. This new network consists of more than 45 control laboratories located in EU Member States. The objective is to improve traceability of GMOs in the food chain and to support regulation of their use in Europe. The network will develop and validate methods for detecting and quantifying GMOs in food and feed. Activities will be co-ordinated by the European Commission's Joint Re>search Centre.

"I welcome the political agreement on the GMO labelling requirements, reached at the Agriculture Council on 28 November. Whilst robust legislation to regulate the use of GMOs in food and feed is necessary, it is not enough on its own", said Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "We have to enforce the legislation and develop reliable, validated tests to verify compliance. I am confident that the network of GMO laboratories will greatly improve our capacity to detect and screen GMOs and to provide a sound scientific basis for enforcing biotechnology legislation. The creation of the Network of GMO laboratories provides us with an important tool to ensure that we harvest the potential that biotechnology holds for consumers in a responsible way."

Biotechnology companies, control authorities, trade partners and importers have all faced the analytical implications of GMO regulations. By creating a strong pan-European network of scientists, such technical issues can be tackled in a transparent way, making the regulatory framework more flexible and manageable, and boost public confidence.

On 28 November 2002, the Council of Agriculture Ministers reached a political agreement on the Commission's proposals for labelling and tracing GMOs in Europe. The draft law provides for all foods in Europe produced from GMOs to be labelled. The Council of Environment Ministers is set to address the issue of GMO traceability at its meeting on 9 December 2002.

Protecting the consumer's right to choose

The EU draft law is based on the premise that consumers have the right to choose between products that do or do not contain GMOs. However, even a very well organised food chain cannot fully guarantee that traditional foodstuffs are free from trace amounts of GMOs.

The Commission has therefore proposed simple and straightforward "threshold" regulation for food labelling. For example, if a biscuit has been made from flour that contains less than one percent of GM maize flour, it should not be labelled; if it contains more than one percent, it should be labelled. The Commission proposal, as endorsed by the Agriculture Council on 28 November, lowers this threshold to 0,9%.

The Council also set a tolerance threshold of 0.5% for a three year period for the adventitious presence of GMO material unauthorised in the EU, but which has undergone a favourable risk assessment.

The GMO detection system requires up-to-date equipment, skilled researchers and robust testing methods to enforce implementation of these technically demanding rules. It is also necessary to establish appropriate sampling strategies to accurately determine the level of GMOs in a 16,000-tonne shipment, for example.

Strong and harmonised controls

Labelling is only the tip of the regulatory iceberg. Other regulations deal with traceability from farm to fork and monitoring in the environment of approved GMOs. All these issues require a strong and harmonised analytical component. It must be strong because any mistake might result in losses for the producer as well as dwindling consumer trust. Harmonisation is critical because controls carried out across Europe on similar materials need to generate the same results.

Therefore, control laboratories throughout the EU initiated discussions about co-operation. Under the co-ordination of the Joint Research Centre, they made an inventory of all the technical difficulties that need to be overcome to meet the expectations from both consumers and biotechnology producers to establish a transparent and watertight control system.

Europe and beyond

Today, more than 45 EU control laboratories are ready to work together in the European network of GMO laboratories on harmonised and efficient methods for sampling, development of reliable methods for the detection, identification and quantification of GMOs, and the production of reference materials.

However, GMO inspection is not just a matter for European Union control laboratories, so the network is inviting future EU Member States to participate in working groups. It is also interacting with all EU global trade partners. Only when all stakeholders collaborate on a worldwide basis, can a system be put in place, allowing the biotechnology industrial community to develop higher yielding crops or more nutritious food products, and ensure consumers' wellbeing.