Question and Answers on the regulation of GMOs in the EU
European Commission - MEMO/04/16 28/01/2004
Brussels, 28 January 2004
Question and Answers on the regulation of GMOs in the EU
What are GMOs and GMMs?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genetically modified micro-organisms (GMMs) can be defined as organisms (and micro-organisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. The technology is often called "modern biotechnology" or "gene technology", sometimes also "recombinant DNA technology" or "genetic engineering". It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.
What is the current legislation in the EU on GMOs?
EU legislation on GMOs has been in place since the early 1990s and throughout the decade, this regulatory framework has been further extended and refined. The EU introduced specific legislation designed to protect its citizens' health and the environment while simultaneously creating a unified market for biotechnology.
The main legislation under which experimental releases and placing on the market of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been authorised in the EU was, up until 17 October 2002, Directive 90/220/EEC. On this date, the Directive was repealed by the new, updated Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and Council on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms(1) (footnote moved from p. 7).
Directive 2001/18/EC, as for Directive 90/220/EEC, puts in place a step-by-step approval process on a case by case assessment of the risks to human health and the environment before any GMO or product consisting of or containing GMOs, such as maize, tomatoes, or microorganisms can be released into the environment or placed on the market.
Products derived from GMOs, such as food products and ingredients (for instance paste or ketchup from a GMO tomato) are not covered by this horizontal Directive but by the Regulation on Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients of 27 January 1997 (Regulation 258/97). This will be replaced by a new Regulation on GM Food and Feed to be applicable from 18 April 2004.
Directive 90/219/EEC, as amended by Council Directive 98/81/EC on the contained use of GMMs, regulates the contained use of GMMs for research and industrial purposes.
This existing legal framework will shortly be completed by two new Regulations, which will become applicable on 18 April 2004:
What has changed under the new Directive for the deliberate release of GMOs?
The revised Directive 2001/18/EC strengthens the old rules on the release of GMOs into the environment. In particular, it introduces:
How does the environmental risk assessment procedure work?
The safety of GMOs depends on the characteristics of the inserted genetic material, the final organism that is produced, the receiving environment and the interaction between the GMO and the environment. The objective of the environmental risk assessment is to identify and evaluate potential adverse effects of the GMO(s). These include direct or indirect, immediate or delayed, effects taking into account any cumulative and long term effects on human health and the environment which may arise from the deliberate release or placing on the market of that GMO(s). The environmental risk assessment also requires evaluation in terms of how the GMO was developed and examines the potential risks associated with the new gene products produced by the GMO (for example toxic or allergenic proteins), and the possibility of gene-transfer (for example of antibiotic resistance genes).
The methodology of the risk assessment is as follows:
What is the procedure for approval of the release of GMOs into the environment?
Under Directive 2001/18/EC, a company intending to market a GMO must first submit an application to the competent national authority of the Member State where the product is to be first placed on the market.
The application must include a full environmental risk assessment. If the national authority gives a favourable opinion on the placing on the market of the GMO concerned, this Member State informs the other Member States via the Commission.
If there are no objections, the competent authority that carried out the original evaluation grants the consent for the placing on the market of the product. The product may then be placed on the market throughout the European Union in conformity with any conditions required in that consent.
If objections are raised and maintained, a decision has to be taken at EU level. The Commission first asks for the opinion of its Scientific Committees composed of independent scientists, highly qualified in the fields associated with medicine, nutrition, toxicology, biology, chemistry, or other similar disciplines.
If the scientific opinion is favourable, the Commission then proposes a draft Decision to the Regulatory Committee composed of representatives of Member States for opinion. If the Regulatory Committee gives a favourable opinion, the Commission adopts the Decision.
If not, the draft Decision is submitted to the Council of Ministers for adoption by qualified majority or rejection. If the Council does not act within 3 months, the Commission can adopt the decision.
During the notification process, the public is also informed and has access to the publicly available data on the internet
for example the summary notification format, the assessment reports of the competent authorities or the opinion of the Scientific Committees.
For experimental releases, notifications are examined and consent is granted as appropriate by the authorities of the Member State in which the release is to be conducted.
How many GMOs have been approved for release into the environment?
Since Directive 90/220/EEC entered into force in October 1991, the commercial release of 18 GMOs has been authorised in the EU, mostly by a Commission Decision following a qualified majority vote in the Regulatory Committee.
Since October 1998, no further authorisations were granted under Directive 90/220/EEC although there were 13 applications pending at the time of its repeal. Some Member States also invoked Article 16, the so-called safeguard clause, of Directive 90/220/EEC to temporarily ban the placing on the market of genetically modified maize and oilseed rape products in their territories. There are currently nine outstanding Article 16 cases involving Austria, Luxembourg, France, Greece, Germany and United Kingdom. These cases have been examined by the Scientific Committee on Plants, which in all cases deemed that the information submitted by Member States did not justify their bans.
National measures notified under Article 16 of Directive 90/220/EEC have now to be dealt with under the safeguard clause provision of Directive 2001/18/EEC (Article 23). The Commission has informed Member States that they should now withdraw their measures under Directive 90/220/EEC and lift the prohibitions, as new rules to complete the legislative framework are in place and will be applicable shortly.
Currently the Commission has received twenty-two (22) notifications under Directive 2001/18/EC. Seven (7) of these are products which were pending under Directive 90/220/EC at the time of its repeal.
What are the current rules on the marketing of GM foods?
Until the new Food and Feed Regulation becomes applicable, authorisation and labelling of novel foods including food products containing, consisting or produced from GMOs is regulated by Regulation (EC) 258/97 on Novel Foods and Novel Food Ingredients.
The first step of an authorisation procedure is an assessment of an application to market a GM food product by the Member State where the food is to be first placed on the market. In case of a favourable opinion, this Member State informs the other Member States via the Commission. If there are no objections against the application, this Member State can authorise the product for marketing in the entire EU.
If there are objections by other Member States, a decision at EU level is required. The Commission consults the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on matters relating to health and in case of a favourable assessment by EFSA submits a draft Decision authorising the product for adoption by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health composed of Member State representatives.
As a derogation from the full authorisation procedure, the Novel Foods Regulation provides for a simplified procedure for foods derived from GMOs but no longer containing GMOs which are "substantially equivalent" to existing foods with respect to composition, nutritional value, metabolism, intended use and the level of undesirable substances. In such cases, the companies only have to notify the Commission when placing a product on the market together with either scientific justification that the product is substantially equivalent or an opinion to the same effect, delivered by the competent authorities of a Member State.
The procedure for authorisations and marketing of GM food under the new Regulation is explained further on in this memo.
How many GMOs have been approved for use in food products?
Products from 16 GMOs can legally be marketed in the EU. These are
Eight applications for GM foods are currently pending at different stages in the authorisation procedure, including products from GM maize, sugar beat and soy bean.
What are the current rules on genetically modified feed and which ones have been authorised?
Until the entry into force of the new Regulation on GM Food and Feed, there has been no EU legislation governing the specific use of material derived from GMOs in feed. Eight GMOs are authorised in accordance with Directive 90/220/EEC for the purpose of use in feed; these are four maize varieties, three rape varieties and one soya variety.
What are the current rules on genetically modified seeds?
EU legislation on seeds, notably Directive 98/95/EC, specifies that national authorities that have agreed to the use of a seed on their territory must notify this acceptance to the Commission. The Commission examines the information supplied by the Member State concerned and its compliance with the provisions of EU seeds legislation.
If such is the case, the Commission includes the variety concerned in the "Common Catalogue of varieties of Agricultural Plant Species" which means the seed can be marketed throughout the EU. The seed legislation furthermore requires that GMO seed varieties have to be authorised in accordance with Directive 2001/18/EEC before they are included in the Common Catalogue and marketed in the EU. If the seed is intended for use in food, it also has to be authorised in accordance with the Novel Foods Regulation.
Legislation on the marketing of forestry reproductive material also requires prior authorisation of GM material in line with the requirements of Directive 2001/18. EU rules governing the marketing of vine material in line with Directive 2001/18 have also been adopted.
Further rules on growing conditions and other requirements for purity concerning the presence of GM seeds in seed lots of traditional varieties, as well as detailed labelling rules are to be proposed shortly.
What are the rules for Medicines, Protection of workers and Transport ?
Authorisation of medicinal products for human and veterinary use (including such derived from genetically modified organisms) is regulated under Regulation (EEC) 2309/93 laying down EU procedures for the authorisation and supervision of medicinal products for human and veterinary use.
Council Directive 90/679/EEC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to biological agents at work also regulates GMOs alongside other biological agents.
What are the current rules on labelling?
The EU recognises the consumers' right for information and labelling as a tool to make an informed choice.
Since 1997 labelling to indicate the presence of GMOs as such or in a product is mandatory. From 17 October 2002 onwards Directive 2001/18/EC foresees that Member States shall take all necessary measures to ensure a labelling of GMOs in products at all stages of the placing on the market.
The Novel Foods Regulation provides for the mandatory labelling of foods and food ingredients which contain or consist of a GMO without prejudice to the other labelling requirements of EU law. The labelling requirements for foods produced from GMOs, but no longer containing GMO are based on the concept of equivalence(2).
Council Regulation (EC) 1139/98 lays down provisions for the labelling of foods and food ingredients derived from one maize and one soya(3) variety based on the presence of DNA or protein resulting from genetic modification. This criterion serves as a model providing the rules applicable to labelling of all foods and food ingredients derived from GMO.
In January 2000, the Commission adopted Regulation (EC) 50/2000 ensuring that also additives and flavourings have to be labelled if DNA or protein of GMO origin is present in the final product.
Regulation (EC) 49/2000 addresses the problem of adventitious presence of GM material in conventional food. It introduces a 1% de minimis threshold for the adventitious presence of DNA or protein resulting from genetic modification below which labelling is not required. Operators have to be in a position to demonstrate that they have used appropriate steps to avoid the presence of GM material.
New rules on labelling will become applicable in April. They are set out below.
Genetically modified seed varieties must be labelled, in accordance with Council Directive 98/95/EEC. The label has to show clearly that it is a GM variety.
New Regulations to apply in April 2004
In July 2003 the Council and the European Parliament adopted two new Regulations:
The new Regulations were published in the Official Journal in the autumn 2003 and will apply on 18 April 2004.
The new Regulations will set up a harmonised EU system to trace GMOs, introduce the labelling of GM feed, reinforce the current labelling rules on GM food and establish a streamlined authorisation procedure for GMOs in food and feed and their deliberate release into the environment. They aim to put into place a stringent regulatory framework, close existing legal gaps and address the legitimate concerns of citizens, consumer organisations and economic operators.
A strict safety assessment of GMOs will continue to assure a high level of health and environmental protection. The labelling of all GM food and feed products will allow consumers and farmers to decide if they want to buy food or feed produced from a GMO, or not.
Why did the Commission propose specific rules on traceability of GMOs?
Traceability provides the means to trace products containing or produced from GMOs through the production and distribution chains. The general objectives are to facilitate:
Directive 2001/18 includes general provisions on which a traceability system for GMOs could be based but neither contains a definition of traceability for GMOs,or includes the objectives of traceability or a complete approach for its implementation.
Differences and overlap between national laws, regulations and administrative provisions concerning traceability of GMOs and food and feed products produced from GMOs may hinder the free movement of products and create conditions of unfair competition. Therefore, a EU Regulation based on the requirements of Directive 2001/18/EC and laying down a harmonised framework for traceability of such products was foreseen to provide legal certainty and a coherent approach, and thus contribute to the effective functioning of the internal market.
Does traceability apply to GMOs and GM products only, or also to other food products?
Traceability for certain products has existed for many years. The new regulation sets specific traceability requirements for GM products. Traceability specifically for GMOs was introduced in general terms into EU legislation with Directive 2001/18/EC which requires that Member States ensure traceability at all stages of the placing on the market for GMOs. General traceability provisions have already been laid down in EU legislation concerning food, feed and seed.
What are the new rules on traceability of GMOs?
Under the rules of the new Regulation on traceability, business operators must transmit and retain information about products that contain or are produced from GMOs at each stage of the placing on the market.
In particular, the requirements are that:
Transmission and keeping records of this information will reduce the need for sampling and testing of products.
How does traceability work in practice?
Traceability can be defined as the ability to trace products through the production and distribution line. For example, where production starts with a genetically modified seed, the company selling the seed would have to inform any purchaser that it is genetically modified, together with more specified information allowing the specific GMO to be precisely identified. The company is also obliged to keep a register of business operators who have bought the seed.
Equally the farmer would have to inform any purchaser of the harvest that it is genetically modified and keep a register of operators to whom he has made the harvest available.
The new Regulation covers all GMOs that have received EU authorisation for the placing on the market, that is all products, including food and feed, containing or consisting of GMOs. Examples are seeds, which have been genetically modified and bulk quantities or shipments of whole GM grain eg. soybean and maize.
The new Regulation also covers food and feed that are derived from a GMO. This includes tomato paste and ketchup produced from a GM tomato or starch, oil or flour produced from a GM maize.
What are the cost implications for operators of the traceability Regulation?
It is difficult to estimate the exact costs of introducing traceability specifically for GMOs and products derived from GMOs.
Information with respect to the supplier, customer, price and transaction date as well as the nature, source, contents and amount of the product already accompanies the majority of transactions.
This information has also to be retained by operators under national administrative systems, for example for filling in VAT returns. Transmission and retention of the information specified in the new Regulation could largely be incorporated into existing systems for transactions and as such, should not imply significant extra costs for operators.
What are the new labelling rules and what is the difference with the existing rules?
The new Regulation extends the current labelling provisions to all genetically modified food or feed, irrespective of the detectability of genetically modified DNA or protein. All food and feed which consist of, contain or are produced from GMOs would have to be labelled as such. The purpose is to inform consumers and farmers about the exact nature and characteristics of the food or feed, so that they can make informed choices.
The current GM labelling system is based on the detectability of genetically modified DNA or protein in the final food product. In practice this means that highly processed foodstuffs produced from GM material, such as highly refined oils, do not need to be labelled. The new labelling rules extend the labelling requirements to all food and ingredients produced from GMOs to allow consumers to exercise their freedom of choice.
Genetically modified feed will need to be labelled along the same principles to give livestock farmers accurate information on the composition and properties of feed. This will mean that a large number of feedstuffs currently not subject to GM labelling requirements, such as GM soy meal in feed or compound feedstuffs and the four genetically modified feed plants authorised under Directive 90/220/EEC will in future need to be labelled.
Will the meat or milk of an animal fed with GM feed also be labelled as GM?
In line with the general EU rules on labelling, the Regulation does not require labelling of products that are not food ingredients such as processing aids.
It does not require labelling of products such as meat, milk or eggs obtained from animals fed with genetically modified feed or treated with genetically modified medicinal products.
How will GM food and feed in future be authorised?
Clear rules are already set out in the EU for the assessment and authorisation of GMOs and GM-food, but the responsibilities are currently divided between the Member States and the EU. The Regulation replaces this with a "one door one key" procedure for the scientific assessment and authorisation of GMOs and GM food and feed.
It puts in place a streamlined, uniform and transparent EU procedure for all marketing applications, whether they concern the GMO itself or the food and feed products derived thereof.
This means that business operators need not request separate authorisations for use of the GMO, and for its use in feed or in food, but that a single risk assessment and a single authorisation are given for a GMO and its possible uses. The Regulation also ensures that experiences such as with Starlink maize in the US are avoided because GMOs likely to be used as food and feed can only be authorised for both uses, or not at all.
The European Food Safety Authority will be responsible for the scientific risk assessment covering both the environmental risk and human and animal health safety assessment. Its opinion will be made available to the public and the public will have the possibility to make comments. On the basis of the opinion of the European Food Authority, the Commission will draft a proposal for granting or refusing authorisation. The proposal will, as it is currently the case, be approved through qualified majority of the Member States within a Regulatory Committee.
Products authorised shall be entered into a public register of GM-food and feed. Authorisations will be granted for a period of 10 years, subject where appropriate to a post-market monitoring plan. Authorisations are renewable for 10-year periods.
The simplified procedure for putting on the market GM-foods which are considered to be substantially equivalent to existing foods will be abandoned.
Why do the new Regulations allow the presence of traces of GM material which have received a favourable scientific assessment, but which are not yet formally approved?
The adventitious or unintended presence of GM material in products placed on the market in the European Union is largely unavoidable and can occur during cultivation, handling, storage and transport. This situation already exists and affects products originating both in the EU and third countries.
This is not a problem which is not unique to GMOs. In the production of food, feed and seed, it is practically impossible to achieve products that are 100% pure.
The Regulation acknowledges this fact and defines the specific conditions under which a technically unavoidable presence of GMOs not yet formally authorised could be permitted.
A number of GMOs have already been assessed by the Scientific Committees advising the European Commission as not posing a danger to environment and health, but their final approval is still pending. The Regulations allow the presence of these GMOs in a food or feed up to a maximum of 0.5% below which labelling and traceability will not be enforced.
This is on the basis that the presence of such material is adventitious or technically unavoidable and has been subject to a scientific risk assessment by the relevant Scientific Committees or European Food Authority, which has concluded that the material does not present a risk for human health and the environment. The Regulation limits the application of this threshold to three years and provides that a detection method must be publicly available.
This exemption aims to solve the problem faced by operators who have tried to avoid GMOs, but find that their products contain a low percentage of GM material due to accidental or technically unavoidable contamination. Current legislation on GM foods already sets a threshold of 1% for the labelling of approved GM material.
What do we mean by co-existence?
Co-existence refers to the ability of the farmer to make a practical choice between conventional, organic and GM-crop production in compliance with the legal obligations for labelling and purity. As such, co-existence is essentially an economic issue. What is at stake are the economic consequences that conventional and/or organic farmers could incur if they have to sell their crops at a lower price because of adventitious presence of GMOs above the authorised threshold level and that result from measures to avoid such presence. Only authorised GMOs can be cultivated in the EU, the environment and health aspects are covered by Directive 2001/18/EC.
At its meeting of 5 March 2003 the Commission decided that it should be left to the Member States to develop national approaches and strategies for co-existence. The position of the European Parliament confirmed this orientation on 2 July 2003 when it adopted the Regulation on GM food and feed. This regulation amends Directive 2001/18/EC and inserts a new article which stipulates that "Member States may take appropriate measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in other products" (Article 26a) and invites the Commission to elaborate guidelines.
The Commission Recommendation on guidelines for the development of national strategies and best practices to ensure the co-existence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming was adopted on 23 July 2003.
What is the content of the guidelines?
The guidelines state that approaches to co-existence need to be developed in a transparent way, based on scientific evidence and in co-operation with all stakeholders concerned. The guidelines are based on experiences with existing segregation practices (e.g. in certified seed production); at the same time they ensure an equitable balance between the interests of farmers of all production types.
Further, they state that management measures to ensure co-existence should be efficient and cost-effective, without going beyond what is necessary to comply with EU threshold levels for GMO labelling. They should be specific to different types of crop, since the probability of admixture varies greatly from one crop to another; while for some crops the probability is high (e.g. oil seed rape) for others the probability is fairly low (e.g. potatoes). In addition, local and regional aspects should be fully taken into account.
Farmers should be able to choose the production type they prefer, without imposing the necessity to change already-established patterns in the neighbourhood. As a general principle, during the phase of introduction of a new production type in a region, farmers who introduce the new production type should bare the responsibility of implementing the actions necessary to limit admixture.
Continuous monitoring and evaluation and the timely sharing of best practices are indicated as imperatives for improving measures over time.
Priority should be given to farm-level management measures and to measures aimed at co-ordination between neighbouring farms. If it can be demonstrated that these measures can not ensure co-existence, regional measures could be considered (e.g. restriction on the cultivation of a certain type of GMO in a region).
Such measures should apply only to specific crops whose cultivation would be incompatible with ensuring co-existence in the region, and their geographical scale should be limited as possible. Region-wide measures should be justified for each crop and type (e.g. seed and crop production separately).
Are the new labelling rules in line with the international trade rules?
The new Regulations take account of the EU's international trade commitments and of the requirements of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety with respect to obligations of importers.
How is the issue of exchange of GMOs regulated with Countries outside of the EU?
The UNEP Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted on 29 January 2000. The overall purpose of this United Nations agreement is to establish common rules to be followed in transboundary movements of GMOs in order to ensure, on a global scale, the protection of biodiversity and of human health.
The European Union ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on 27 August 2002 In order to fulfil its international obligations; the EU must transpose the provisions of the Biosafety Protocol into its own legal order.
The implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety into EU legislation relies on a wide range of biotechnology legislation applying to the use of GMOs within the European Union, including imports. The centre part of this legal framework is the Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms.
The current Regulation does not foresee new specific EU provisions for imports or for movements of GMOs between Member States. These operations will continue to be covered by existing EU legislation.
The final adoption of the Regulation on the transboundary movements of GMOs, on 13 June 2003, completes the EU legal framework necessary to the full implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, in time for its entry into force.
The required number of 50 instruments of ratification was reached on 13 June 2003. In accordance with the provisions of its Article 37, the Protocol entered into force on 11 September 2003.
(1) OJ L 106, 17.4.2001
(2)This means that if a characteristic or property (composition, nutritional value or nutritional effects, intended use) renders a food or food ingredient no longer equivalent to an existing counterpart, it has to be labelled indicating the method (i.e. genetic modification) by which the characteristic or property was obtained.
(3)These varieties were approved before the entering into force of the Novel Foods Regulation under Directive 90/220/EEC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms