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Updated: Court allows Italy, other countries to temporarily ban GM foods...but only if health risks proven

(Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Just-food.com, 09/09/03: The European Union's high court has ruled that Italy and other EU member states can place temporary bans on genetically modified foods if they suspect the foods pose a threat to public health or the environment.

A European nation "can as a preventive measure ... temporarily restrict or suspend the marketing of those foods in its territory," the court was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. There should be no "relaxation of the safety requirements that must be met by novel foods."

The ruling stems from a dispute between the Italian government and biotech giant Monsanto.

The court ruled that Italy was entitled in August 2000 to ban certain foods, notably flour made from genetically modified maize, from Monsanto Europe, Syngenta AG and Pioneer Hi-Bred International.

The court added, however, that Italy must provide evidence of the suspected risks in order to sustain a ban, reported AP.

September 10, 2003
Italy Loses Ruling on Modified Food

BRUSSELS, Sept. 9 - In a judgment that appeared to offer ammunition to both sides in the debate on genetically modified foods, the European Court of Justice ruled today that Italy's grounds for banning foods derived from certain genetically altered corn seeds were unjustified.

Europe's highest court was asked to intervene by an Italian court, which was handling an appeal of a ban on foods containing four strains of genetically modified corn that had been submitted by the biotechnology companies Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer Hi-Bred International shortly after the ban was introduced in 2000.

The Italian government imposed the ban because it feared that the presence of a synthetic protein in the foods might be a risk to human health. The biotechnology companies argued that the protein was so unimportant that the foods ultimately made from the corn would be virtually identical to foods made from conventional corn strains.

The companies also argued that the Italian ban breached European Union laws, which permit the trade in foods containing genetically modified elements if the food is "substantially equivalent" to conventional foods.

British food authorities had already decided that the strains of corn in question were safe well before Italy imposed its ban. And the European Union's executive branch, the European Commission, circulated the British position to all 15 member countries to use as grounds for appraising the corn.

Today's judgment is not the final word on the matter. The case must now go back to Italian courts for a final ruling, but the European court's opinion will guide the Italian judges when they reassess the case.

The European Court of Justice said that the risk Italy used to justify its ban "must not be purely hypothetical or be founded on mere suppositions which are not yet verified," adding that Italy must base its action on specific data and not on reasons of a general nature. "The mere presence of residues of transgenic protein in novel foods does not prevent their being placed on the market," the court said.

However, the court did uphold the right of governments to impose a ban on substances that pose a threat to health.

"If a member state has detailed grounds to suspect such a risk," the court said in a statement, "it may temporarily restrict or suspend the trade in and use of the food in question in its territory."

The Italian government interpreted this as a victory. "I am very pleased that Italy has won," the environment minister, Altero Matteoli, said today in Brussels.

But Monsanto, the European Commission, the office of the United States trade representative, as well as experts in European law reached a different conclusion. "Based on today's judgment we should win when the case goes back to the Italian court," said Tom McDermott, a Monsanto spokesman.

"We have been saying for over two years that there is no justification for Italy's ban on foods derived from the four corn types; the court confirmed this," said Beate Gminder, a European Commission spokeswoman on health matters.

"We are analyzing the decision closely," said Richard Mills, a spokesman at the United States trade representative's office. "It appears to endorse our view that science-based rules should be used."

Ian Forrester, a partner in the Brussels office of the law firm White & Case, said, "This judgment appears to raise the bar for governments seeking to ban novel foods." Mr. Forrester represented companies including Pfizer in recent legal fights against bans of animal feed additives containing antibiotics.

"It looks like the court is calling for higher standards of scientific evidence" to justify a ban "than the standards required in the antibiotic case," he said. "In this sense, the judgment is saying helpful things for the industry."

Ms. Gminder said that bans like the Italian one were unlikely to be imposed again because imminent new legislation will remove any grounds for governments to act alone as Italy did. Next month, two unionwide regulations come into force that will supercede the novel foods rule Italy used to justify its ban on the four corn strains. One is a regulation setting clear rules on how food containing genetically modified organisms should be labeled and how such elements can be traced. The other will regulate such organisms in human and animal food.

Mr. McDermott of Monsanto said that while his company took issue with some aspects of these laws, it welcomed a legal framework that should allow for the removal of the union's general moratorium on genetically modified ingredients.

People close to the Bush administration doubt that the overall ban will be lifted any time soon. "Promises, promises. We've heard it all before," one person said.

The United States earlier this year filed a complaint against the European Union's moratorium on genetically altered organisms with the World Trade Organization.

Despite the moratorium, some countries in the union are already permitting some genetically modified crops. Spanish farmers have been growing altered corn for several years. The British government has also been supportive of the new technologies, Mr. McDermott said.

"With the new rules on labeling, other member states might not be so reluctant to accept biotech foods," Mr. McDermott added.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/10/business/worldbusiness/10food.html