HC Deb 17 December 1998 vol 322 cc1080-1
2. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

What safeguards his Department has introduced to ensure that consumers have adequate information on genetically modified foods. [62986]

14. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure the clear labelling of genetically modified foods. [62998]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The Government are committed to providing clear information to enable consumers to make informed choices about genetically modified foods, including the labelling of all foods containing genetically modified material.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Will he assure me that all genetically modified food products are clearly labelled so that consumers can make the informed choices that they want about the food that they eat? In the light of public concern, will he reassure the House that he will keep the quality of such labelling under review?

Mr. Rooker

Yes, most certainly. There are only four genetically modified products on sale in this country at present: maize, soya, tomato paste and vegetarian cheese. They all have to be labelled if the ingredients are genetically modified. We hope to co-operate with our European partners in getting additives covered over the next 12 months, but that will require EU regulation.

Mr. McNulty

May I assure my hon. Friend that Harrow is not the centre of genetically modified food in this country? It is a pure coincidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and I have tabled questions on that subject today.

Given the conflicting scientific advice, will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will stick firmly to the precautionary principle and ensure that, in terms of both debate and advice, the public are informed as much as possible, and will he resist those who scaremonger irresponsibly on the issue?

Mr. Rooker

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We have opened up the meetings of the advisory committees that advise the Government on the issue and their minutes are now published. The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes held its second open meeting a few days ago to discuss how we can take forward long-term monitoring of genetically modified foods once they are more widely available on the market. On 21 October, a new Cabinet Committee on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification was announced and that Committee has now met. This morning, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced a Government review of the framework of all the advisory committees on biotechnology so that we ensure that we have the right pattern of advice to the Government.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, although it is desirable to provide information, labelling and, if necessary, a monitoring system, it is important to retain a sense of balance? Will the Minister, who, by the standards of Labour Ministers, has always struck me as a relatively normal individual—[Laughter.] I realise that I have probably already inflicted grave damage on the hon. Gentleman's reputation with that observation. Will he confirm that, while he is a Minister and responsible for these matters, the cause of information will not be overtaken by politically correct fetishists with a hostility to the British food industry?

Mr. Rooker

I note that the hon. Gentleman speaks under the protection of parliamentary privilege in respect of his first comment. I understand the tone of his question and, by and large, the answer is yes. We will conduct this policy on the basis of the best science available. We will not shut out from our deliberations any scientists who are not in the loop and who have other views about this issue. We will listen to them. We will operate the precautionary principle and ensure, for example, that, as the crops begin to grow, they will be introduced in a managed way. It will not be uncontrolled. To that extent, we will work using the best science and be as open and transparent as possible.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Does the Minister agree that the fact that one in five of the official Government sites for genetically modified crops is breaking the regulation governing the trials is undermining public confidence in a potentially valuable method of food production and fuelling suspicions that the advocates of the rapid expansion of genetic modification are motivated by commercial pressures and ready to ride roughshod over legitimate public fears?

Mr. Rooker

The short answer is that we are taking the regulation of those crops so seriously that the Health and Safety Executive is prosecuting two agricultural companies, Monsanto and Perry Field Holdings, following a routine inspection of a trial site at Rothwell on 5 June this year. The case will be heard on 17 February next year. The regulation of the science and the industry is taken very seriously.

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