Retailers and manufacturers are on the verge of a fresh labelling row as fears grow that genetically engineered food is about to be sneaked into the British diet.
The humble soya bean, used in packaged cakes, bread, chocolate, soup and ice cream, could be the first of a series of staple food products containing genetically modified strains to enter the grocery chain.
US food giant Monsanto is trying to push a laboratory-bred soya bean into Europe mixed in with traditionally grown crops, much to the concern of British retailers.
Genetically modified (GM) soya resists all pesticides except one which allows farmers to blanket spray their fields.
Problems arise because there is no test to distinguish the new soya from the traditional beans. US suppliers of soya say it is unnecessary and impracticable to separate the genetically modified product, which has been approved as safe in the US, Canada and Europe.
But in a determined show of unity, UK retailers have imposed a blanket ban on the crop being used in their own-label products.
Under the auspices of the British Retail Consortium, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Somerfield, Safeway, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose insist the soya is either definitely genetically modified or not – so their products can be labelled accordingly.
Monsanto is accused of trying to sneak the genetically engineered soya into the food chain, so that once it is in, it cannot be got out. Retailers are unhappy about the deafening silence from the company. There has been no press conference and no organised information campaign.
John Morris of the British Retail Consortium says: “We have got no axe to grind with genetically modified food. It’s when it is being slipped in through the back door that we draw the line.”
In the wake of the BSE crisis, traceability in the food chain has taken on huge significance. Last week’s revelations that some stores have passed off beef mince in packs of “pure” lamb mince, show how fragile consumer trust can be.
A spokesman for Safeway says: “We have done massive amounts of work on both product and ingredient traceability and that must not be compromised.”
Some consumers are still nervous about genetic engineering, particularly when it concerns animals and fish. Stories of what can be done in the lab – such as salmon that grow up to 37 times the size of normal fish – fill many consumers with horror. But genetically engineered tomatoes, which rot less quickly, have been listed by Sainsbury’s and Safeway in clearly labelled packs and appear to have been accepted by the consumer.
Labelling genetically modified food is still voluntary, although this is set to change with the introduction of EU regulations. Nobody in the industry wants labels saying this “may” contain genetically modified food.
Many in the industry who agree with using non-segregated soya say the retailers want to appear “whiter than white” by keeping GM soya out of their products in these delicate introductory months. They claim that this inevitably suggests retailers do not trust the product.
A spokesman for a manufacturer says: “The retailers want to be seen to have tried to offer consumer choice, but this can backfire and blow up into a huge scare.”
The issue has split the industry. On one side the BRC supports a boycott of the American crop; on the other side, the Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, says it is unworkable and unnecessary.
Lynn Insall, executive in the FDF’s scientific and technological division, says: “It would cost billions of dollars to separate the genetically modified soya from the traditional crop – you would have to run two separate industries.”
She says there would be no guarantee that the different crops, sold on a massive scale in world markets, would remain segregated.
Big brand manufacturers such as Nestlé, Heinz and Cadbury, whose products include soya beans, support the FDF’s position, raising the spectre of tension between them and the retailers.
The BRC refuses to speculate if retailers will blacklist branded manufacturers who start using genetically modified soya.
Caroline Brown, senior project leader at the IGD says: “Retailers are at the forefront of consumer questioning. The supplier is answerable to his consumers for his own products.” The IGD has drawn up a draft information leaflet aimed at concerned shoppers.
All sides in the industry agree the introduction of biotech products must be handled as gently as possible in order to maintain public confidence in their power to bring consumer benefits. The retailers say they will not be steamrollered by Monsanto. They want to keep the non-segregated soya harvest in the US this year to give them breathing space for a public debate on the whole issue. But with other genetically engineered crops such as maize and potatoes waiting in the wings, time is running out.