Open letter to UK supermarkets on FSA ‘precision bred’ organism consultation
Dear UK supermarket,
I am writing to you from GM Freeze, a membership organisation that campaigns for adequate safety regimes, transparency and regulation in relation to the development and commercial release of genetically modified and gene edited plants and animals.
I am contacting you regarding the Food Standards Agency (FSA)’s current consultation on a proposed new regulation framework for ‘precision bred’ organisms, following the passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act in March. The closing date for the consultation is the 6th January. We are interested in how your supermarket intends to respond and whether you intend to take legal advice regarding what would happen in the event of a safety-related product recall.
GM Freeze has serious concerns about the framework, particularly the lack of safety testing, traceability and labelling that is proposed. A similar deregulation framework has been proposed in Europe, however, it is currently unclear whether this will be approved as a result of similar concerns. Leading supermarkets in Europe have publicly objected to the proposals.
Also of concern is that the consultation states that it is up to organic producers and distributors to choose whether or not they allow gene edited products in their supply chains. This is misleading, as organic standards do not allow such products. It would seem that regulators are either attempting to undermine organic production, or shift the costs of separation onto the organic sector.
There is currently a lack of safety data on the direct consumption of gene edited plants. The potential removal of mandatory risk assessments from the process of bringing gene edited products to market is of serious concern, both in Europe and the UK, particularly as it is combined with a lack of traceability and labelling.
How do you as a retailer intend to ensure that you do not have any unsafe products on your shelves? If this was found to be the case, who would bear the financial cost and legal responsibility for removing them – would it be regulatory bodies, distributors or retailers? Who would be legally responsible if consumers become ill?
British consumers’ views on labelling
The FSA’s own research has shown that consumers overwhelmingly want labelling. Its July 2021 consultation found: “most participants strongly felt that labelling should always tell consumers if there are genome edited ingredients in the product, because transparency is crucial to enable consumers to choose for themselves, and to build consumer trust in genome edited foods.”
Of the survey respondents to the FSA’s March 2023 consultation, nearly four in five (77%) said it would be important when buying a food item to know if it had been precision bred, and nearly half (45%) said it would be ‘very’ important. Only one in six (15%) said knowing this would not be important.
If supermarkets begin to sell unlabelled gene edited products they will do so directly against the wishes of their customers, and this will have an impact on the relationship and trust between retailers and consumers. However, it would be very difficult – if not impossible – for retailers not to do this should the proposals go ahead in their current form.
A responsible approach
Supermarkets need to take a firm stand on labelling in order to respect the wishes of their customers. Labelling is not included in the current consultation, which is justified with an observation that there are no provisions for labelling in the Act. However, it is also true that there are no provisions for not labelling in the Act. Further, that the Act contains a clause which enables secondary legislation to override primary legislation.
Whilst it may be easy for the FSA to ignore the wishes of members of the public, it is not so easy for retailers, which depend on their custom and trust. It is therefore up to concerned and responsible supermarkets to present their customer’s wishes to the FSA. As pointed out by the British Retail Consortium, “any policy has to be developed in the context of consumer acceptability and the wider financial implications for our UK farmer suppliers.”
I very much hope that your supermarket plans to respond to the consultation and is taking legal advice regarding what its responsibilities would be should the new framework be implemented. The short time frame for responses is problematic, particularly for consumer- facing businesses at their busiest time of year, and GM Freeze has already lodged a complaint with the FSA on this issue.
I would be very grateful if you could let me know. We are particularly interested in positively acknowledging any progressive supermarkets that take a stance in support of their customers’ wishes.
 Clause 42 is this ‘King Henry 8th clause’.