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Page last update: 25/12/2008

Agriculture, legislation: Italy’s no to designer food upheld – for now

Europe’s top court has ruled in a dispute between Italy and a US biotech giant that Rome can keep in place its ban on certain GM products but only if it can provide clear proof of a public health risk. The decision has prompted both to claim victory in the row.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has intervened in a deadlocked dispute between the Italian government and US biotechnology giant Monsanto over Rome’s three-year-old decision to ban – on public health grounds – certain varieties of GM maize available elsewhere in the EU.
The row centres around the Union’s “simplified procedures”, which allow biotechnology firms to distribute, without European Commission approval, GM foods that are “substantially equivalent” to conventional varieties already on the market and deemed to be safe by any one Member State.
The ECJ ruled that Italy can continue to uphold its ban but only if Rome can provide “detailed” evidence of the risks to public health involved. However, the Court also confirmed that Monsato’s decision to market the GM maize without Commission approval was in accordance with EU regulations.
“Foods which are produced from genetically modified organisms but no longer contain them may be placed on the market… if they are substantially equivalent to comparable traditional foods: proof of which can be given by a national food assessment body.” Monsato had introduced its maize – which loses its genetically modified DNA during processing – into the EU market on the strength of approvals by French and UK agencies.

The battle continues
The ECJ has referred the matter to the Italian legal system, which will have to review any evidence the government provides in defence of the injunction it put in place in 2000. The Italian government will be required to substantiate its fears of the environmental or public health impacts of the maize.
Tests of processed maize carried out by Italian scientists have found residues of GMO proteins. This has prompted Italian officials to regard the ECJ ruling as vindication for their ban. “I am very pleased that Italy has won,” Environment Minister Altero Matteoli told journalists.
However, Monsato points to the ECJ verdict to suggest that the evidence so far uncovered does not justify the Italian ban. “The mere presence of residues of transgenic protein in novel foods does not prevent their being placed on the market,” the Court concluded.
Monsato is sceptical that Rome will be able to uncover enough new facts to keep its decision in place. “It is extremely unlikely,” a company spokesman told Reuters. “These products have been reviewed by authorities not just in the EU, but around the world, in the United States, Canada and Japan.”
“Whatever Monsanto may say, this doesn't mean that these products are allowed or that the ban is lifted,” a spokesman for Friends of the Earth Europe was quoted as saying. “What they are trying to do is get access to the market for their products using a concept which has already been rejected by European lawmakers.”

Source: EU and external sources
More Information:
ECJ press release
Friends of the Earth

Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top