Skip to content
for a responsible, fair & sustainable food system

Illegal GM Flax Found in UK Bread – FSA Fails to Protect Consumers

Immediate release (5 Nov 2009)

Calls to Pete Riley 0845 217 8992 or Eve Mitchell 01381 610 740 (or 07962 437 128)

A loaf of bread purchased from Marks and Spencer has been found to contain an unauthorised and illegal GM flax. [1]

Presence of the GM flax in the European Union was first confirmed in early September. It has now been detected in products containing flax seeds in at least 36 countries around the world. The UK is included in the reports sent by the EU authorities, indicating that the FSA initiated at least one of these EU alerts, although the FSA has not issued any information about the nature or extent of the contamination.

The contaminated bread was purchased by GM Freeze in October and analysed by Genetic ID (Europe) AG’s laboratory in Augsburg, Germany. Analysis was for a GM construct known to have been used in CDC Triffid Flax (FP967), which was grown on a commercial in small areas in Canada and the USA between 1998 and 2001, after which it was deregulated and it now cannot legally be grown commercially or sold. There is no approval for GM flax of any type to be imported into the EU, and no applications for import have ever been made.

While the source of the contamination is currently unknown, as Canadian authorities have been unable to identify the source of the contamination [2], it is widely assumed to be Triffid, which was genetically engineered to be tolerant to the sulphonylurea herbicides. The GM construct includes an antibiotic resistant gene for kanomycin, which is subject to a long debate on safety amongst EU advisers because of the risk that the gene will jump into harmful bacterium in human and animal guts and increase the risk from antibiotic resistant pathogens. [3]

The Food Standards Agency has so far failed to issue a Food Alert to UK food businesses and institutions to inform them of the potential presence of the GM flax in ingredients and products, telling GM Freeze there is “no grounds” to do so. In the absence of an EU approval based on a full safety assessment it is illegal to market the flax anywhere in the EU. US and Canadian GM safety assessments are far less rigorous than EU processes, which require more testing data to be provided by applicants. In 2006 GM Freeze published an analysis of crops at risk from contamination and made a series of recommendations, including that all incoming cargoes comprising of crops which have been genetically modified in the country of origin should be monitored for GM presence before unloading. [4]

GM Freeze purchased two food samples in October to check for the presence of the GM flax. One sample Super Seed Bread from Marks and Spencer was found to be contaminated with the GM flax seed.

Following previous GM contamination incident involving long grain rice from the USA, the FSA was criticised by a High Court Judge [5] for:

  • failure to issue any Food Alerts to local authorities.
  • failure to notify the public of which batches of rice were contaminated.
  • failure to provide legal guidance to local authorities at the start of the incident.

Commenting Eve Mitchell of GM Freeze said:

We tested one loaf of bread and found this illegal GM when the FSA says there are ‘no grounds’ to issue a Food Alert. We were very surprised that it was from a company that has prided itself on its high level of traceability, but this illustrates the need for imports to be cleared before they leave ports.

Most consumers will be shocked to learn that the FSA has let the contamination by GM flax continue for so long without issuing an official Food Alert to food companies warning them of the GM contamination and their legal responsibilities. It is astonishing that the FSA has not published the results of sampling if, indeed, any has been carried out by them.

Once again the body which is supposed to be the consumer’s watchdog has failed when it comes to a GM contamination incident. The UK’s politicians need to start questioning why this is and take steps to ensure that the complacent attitudes are brought to an end. It’s time Parliament stepped in to ensure UK food is safe. There is just no knowing if this contamination is unique to M&S or has found its way to all supermarkets. For all we know this GM contamination has been in our food for years without any safety testing.


[1] Copy of analysis report available on request.

[2] See GM Freeze report here.

[3] The European Medicines Authority have expressed concerns about the use of kanomycon resistance genes because of concerns that it may compromise future use of the antibiotic and concerns about current treatments for TB. The European Food safety Agency has said that the presence of the gens “pose no risk”.

European medicines Authority say:

Although it is recognised that this marker gene only codes for resistance to kanamycin and neomycin the clinical/public health implications of this may not always remain the same. It is true that aminoglycosides and especially kanamycin and neomycin are used relatively infrequently and that the potential impact of this resistance gene therefore appears less relevant, at least in a short-term perspective. However, that situation may change as new chemical entities similar to kanamycin and neomycin could be developed. New chemical entities similar to kanamycin and neomycin could have other properties in relation to, for example, absorption from the gastrointestinal tract and with regard to side-effects. They thus have the potential to become extremely important to treat otherwise multi-resistant gram-negative infections and Tuberculosis…

Aminoglycosides such as kanamycin are currently recommended for treatment in multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). Drug resistance in TB is part of the explanation for the resurgence of TB. WHO estimates that eight million people get TB every year. In the absence of an effective therapy, infectious MDR-TB patients will continue to spread the disease, producing new infections with MDR-TB strains. Until we introduce a new drug with demonstrated activity against MDR strains, this aspect of the TB epidemic could begin to explode at an exponential level (from the Global Alliance for TB Drug development (…

In Estonia, Kanamycin was very recently introduced in the TB program (personal communication).

[4] See GM Freeze report here.

[5] See details here.