The European Commission developed two sets of regulations late this summer that, if implemented, would mandate a continent-wide system to trace and label genetically modified organisms in all feed and food products.
The proposals were pounded out in response to widespread consumer concern and might also provide leverage for the EU when negotiating with U.S. trade representatives. Although the guidelines don't go into effect until 2003, they could be a boon to U.S. organic products exporters.
"Hypothetically, it would level the playing field," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. The audit trails, production chain reports and labeling criteria called for by the regulations and considered burdensome by conventional trade representatives are work that organic products producers have already done.
The traceability regulation makes it possible to follow GMOs through the production and distribution chain by requiring that business operators transmit and retain certain information. The labeling proposals would stipulate labels for all foods produced from GMOs, whether or not there is DNA or protein of GM origin in the final product. Companies that are certified organic in the United States comply with both criteria.
"On the one hand, [the proposed regulations] protect consumers and foster product transparency," DiMatteo said. "But on the other hand, it's true to form of the European style of policy and politics."
Differences in GMO policy and regulation would give the EU more bargaining power in trade negotiations with the United States. DiMatteo was not confident the proposals would survive international pressure and thought they might be bargained away in exchange for compromise on another issue.
"There's no will in our government for labeling GMOs," she said. "I think they'll fight it tooth and nail and claim it's a trade barrier."
Though the Commission's proposed regulations stand on shaky political ground, they provide stark contrast between Europe's priorities and those of the FDA. Early this year, the U.S. agency charged with protecting consumers from harmful ingredients proposed guidelines for voluntary labeling of GMOs. Although more than 92,000 comments have been received, so far that agency has failed to respond to consumer concerns or finalize a guideline.
"I'm glad to see the EC has made this decision. I think it puts a lot of pressure on U.S. agribusiness," said DiMatteo. "I hope it encourages farmers not to plant GE crops for fear of losing market share in Europe, and I hope it proves to be an example of labeling regulations that indeed can work."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 10/p. 16