EU Commission considers a threshold for unapproved GMOs

The European Commission intends to relax the existing policy of zero tolerance that prohibits unapproved GM crops from entering the EU market. To date, ships that contain traces of unapproved GMOs are refused at port. In June, the European Health Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, announced a proposal for the establishment of a threshold by this summer. Such a measure would allow traces of non-approved GMOs in imported food and feed products.

Androulla Vassiliou, European Health Commissioner
Androulla Vassiliou, European Health Commissioner
However, the practical realisation of such a threshold seems to be tricky. As stated by the press officer of Commissioner Vassiliu to reporters from Euro-Biotech-News, changes in the underlying law “would require long negotiations and approval from the European Council and the European Parliament”.  A “technical solution” is planned instead.

As early as 2005, the Commission found a technical solution for traces of unapproved chloramphenicol in shrimps from China. At that time, the Commission defined a reference point for action (RFPA) that is based on the “Minimum Required Performance Limit” (MRPL) . The MRPL represents the minimal concentration of the banned substance in question that must be able to determine with specified degrees of accuracy and precision by an analytical method and is based on the current limit of detection (LOD).

It seems unlikely that such an solution would meet the requirements of the market. According to Dr Barbara Schaffrath from Eppendorf Biochip Systems, the current LOD of PCR-based GMO detection methods for unapproved GMO events is 0.1 per cent.  As part of the EU-funded Co-Extra project, her working group has developed such a GMO detection system known as ‘DualChip® GMO’.

Alexander Döring, Secretary General of the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC), pointed out that current maize imports from South America "systematically contain up to 0.5 per cent GMOs". He proposed an "economically practical" threshold of 0.9 per cent for unapproved or phased-out GMOs, provided that the GMOs concerned have been tested by EMEA or by other relevant authorities in line with the Codex Alimentarius GM plant guideline with regard to safety.

The situation is seen as critical also by members of the EU Agricultural Commissioner’s cabinet. At a meeting of representatives from the agricultural industry in June in Berlin, Klaus-Dieter Borchardt warned: "If we do not resolve the problem of importing GM feed, we could lose approximately 50 per cent of our animal and meat production."

A report published by DG Agri in 2007 stated that the asynchronous authorisation of GM soybeans in the US and the EU could lead to drastic price increases of as much as 60 % for soy.

Sources: "Commission to set GMO threshold", Insight Europe, No 7-8, 2008; Co-Extra, 2008