Tiny amounts of unapproved genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will be permitted in food imports to the European Union under draft rules due to be proposed shortly by the bloc's executive, EU officials said on Monday.
Exporters and European producers say the rules are needed to avoid disruptions to food imports, with global supply chains making it increasingly difficult to guarantee cargoes bound for Europe are free of GMOs not yet approved in the bloc.
"The European Commission has said it wants to tackle this issue before the end of this year, and we will table a proposal in the very near future," Commission spokesman for health and consumers Frederic Vincent said.
The draft rules are likely to be proposed before the European summer break to allow enough time for EU governments and lawmakers to approve them by the end of the year, said another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Last year, the bloc approved a similar law allowing up to 0.1 percent of unapproved GMO material in animal feed imports, after several shipments from the United States were blocked at EU ports after unapproved GM material was found in some cargoes.
The problem arises because of the slow pace of GMO approvals in Europe, which create delays of up to two years between new varieties being cleared for cultivation in North and South America and getting import approval from the European Union.
As with the existing rules for feed, the proposals are expected to set a tolerance threshold of 0.1 percent, and the GMOs in question must be approved in the exporting country with an EU authorisation request already lodged with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
All EU import approvals are granted for both food and feed uses, reflecting the integrated nature of global commodity supply chains. As a result, EU officials said it was impractical to have a GMO contamination threshold for imports of feed but not for food.
But with strong public opposition to GMOs across much of Europe, any plan to allow even tiny amounts of genetically modified material in food could prove controversial. Environmentalists say the impact of consuming GMOs is unknown.
It is unclear whether the idea has the majority backing of EU governments that it needs to become law.
On Monday, German farm minister Ilse Aigner said she would oppose any EU proposal to end the bloc's zero-tolerance stance on unapproved GMOs in human food. (Reporting by Charlie Dunmore; editing by Rex Merrifield and James Jukwey)