HC Deb 22 January 1998 vol 304 cc1133-4
7. Mr. Gordon Prentice

What estimates he has made of the likely future consumer demand for genetically modified food. [22308]

Mr. Rooker

My Ministry is responsible for ensuring that such foods are safe and clearly labelled. It is for food manufacturers and producers to assess likely consumer demand for their products.

Mr. Prentice

While I acknowledge that my hon. Friend's commitment to proper food labelling is unparalleled, does he share my anxiety about developments in the European Union? Proposals emerged from Brussels last month that would ensure that the "genetically modified" label will apply to only 20 per cent. of products derived from GM soya beans and maize and that some products such as flavourings and food additives will be excluded. What steps can the Government take to ensure that the EU takes a more robust line on this matter, which excites tremendous consumer concern?

Mr. Rooker

We are taking a robust line, but my hon. Friend must not jump to conclusions about the results of the negotiations in Brussels. No decision has been made even after last week's meeting. We are still progressing the negotiations on labelling. We want labelling that is informative, practical and meaningful. That means that where GM bits and pieces have been used in the manufacture, but refined out of the final product, the label will probably not include a reference to genetic modification. We are still negotiating on the issue in Brussels and we hope to come to a conclusion in the very near future.

Mrs. Browning

If labelling is to be meaningful, it must be enforceable. What investigation has the Minister made into the role of enforcement agencies in respect of labelling? Where the genetically modified gene exactly mimics, without any tracer or marker, the unmodified gene, enforcement is extremely difficult. It is my understanding that science has not yet provided the tests that enable enforcement officers to determine whether a product contains genetically modified genes. What progress has there been in that respect?

Mr. Rooker

The hon. Lady is perfectly right. There are going to be some products that it is impossible to test to establish whether genetically modified substances have been used in their manufacture and processing.

MAFF has a large research budget which was left by our predecessors. It is a strongly science-based Ministry, as the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who is sitting next to her, will know. In collaboration with our European partners, we are using all possible avenues to explore the use of that money and the research programme to come up with testing procedures that enable us to give comfort to manufacturers, in that we would be able to test and check positively the accuracy of labelling, and to give consumers what they demand, which is information and the comfort of safety and knowledge of how products were made.