Tuesday, 23 June 1998
Dáil Éireann Debate
This amendment concerns the Irish title of the authority. I will not accept amendment No. 10 which relates to the English title appearing before the Irish title as the authority will have an international aspect to its work. For example, section 18(1) provides for collaboration by the authority in research projects with parties outside the State. The title, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, has already gained some currency as the interim body has been established for some time, initially on a non-statutory basis and since January 1998 under a statutory instrument.
“(5) The Authority shall require that all food containing genetically modified organisms which is imported or offered for sale in the State is clearly labelled to indicate the presence of such organisms which shall be detailed on the label.
The genetic engineering of food for human consumption is a major question confronting society at present and raises very broad environmental issues which, unfortunately, do not come under the scope of the Bill. These include the effect which the genetic engineering of plants, crops, vegetables and so on could have on the ecosystem, the dangers posed to the integrity of ecosystems built up over thousands of years and the  food emerging from them for animal or human consumption. It would be far better if a holistic approach were taken to this issue; I regret there was not any comprehensive discussion on it in this House in the past 12 months but it is important that one takes place in the near future.
I will confine my comments to the effects of genetic engineering as they relate to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill. Genetically modified organisms in food raise very grave questions in regard to human health. People have very real and well grounded fears about human allergies and illnesses caused by genetically engineered food. Genetic engineering entails radical tampering with genes, one of the most fundamental blocks of plant, animal and human life. For example, genes are taken from microbes, scorpions and fish and inserted into plants and vegetables. The soya bean has been one of the main targets of such genetic manipulation. Genes are transposed from brazil nuts, for example, allegedly to enrich the nutrition content of the soya bean. Soya is used in a vast array of foods, some of the most common being bread, margarine, cereals, flour, baby food and chocolate and nobody knows what the effects of this kind of genetic engineering and tampering will be on human health.
In the case of genes being transposed from brazil nuts into soya beans, it has been documented and scientifically proven that this practice could have very serious effects on people who are allergic to nuts. Scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln found that tests proved that soya beans modified with genes from brazil nuts to produce nutritious proteins found in the nuts also produced proteins which set off strong and potentially deadly allergic reactions in people sensitive to brazil nuts. The findings confirm early suspicions that transferring genes to food plants posed such risks. Those findings are contained in an article by Warren E. Leary entitled Genetic Engineering of Food Can Spread Serious Allergies. Dr. Rebecca J. Goldburg, senior scientist with the Environmental Defence Fund in the US, said the study published in the 14 March issue of the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed scientific fears about genetically engineered crop plants causing allergic reactions. Dr. Goldburg stated that since genetic engineers mix genes from a wide array of species, other genetically engineered foods may cause similar health problems. People who are allergic to one type of food may suddenly discover they are allergic to many more because of the transposition of genes from the food to which they are allergic. In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Marion Nestle of New York University said proof that allergens could be transferred from one food to another made it imperative the US Government considered regulating the industry. Food allergies have, she states, been confirmed in at least 2 per cent of the adult population and 8 per cent of children and there is evidence that  the prevalence of food allergies and sensitivities is increasing as more proteins are added to commercial foods. Therefore, it is beyond doubt that genetic engineering can cause potentially deadly health effects.
Genetic engineering is proceeding at a frightening pace with genes from a variety of sources being introduced into an array of foods including animal foodstuffs such as maize. What is true of the brazil nut and soya bean undoubtedly holds true for other instances in which genes are transposed.
The Minister may say the current policy of substantial equivalence is sufficient to allow people to know whether foods are dangerous. Substantial equivalence is described as the idea that existing organisms used as food or food sources can serve as a basis for comparison when assessing the safety of human consumption of a food or food component which is new or modified. If a genetically engineered food or food component is found to be substantially equivalent to an existing food or food component, it may be treated in the same manner with respect to its safety. This theory has also been discredited in scientific experiments. In the case of yeast, genetically engineered to produce high levels of enzymes which break down sugar, scientists were concerned with boosting enzyme activity on the different chemical pathways of the breakdown process.
The research has found that concentrations of a toxic and mutagenic product, mg, was up to 30 times higher in the mixtures with a genetically engineered yeast compared to the original strains. The fact that boosting the concentration of an enzyme can affect build-up of products several metabolic steps further downstream has serious repercussions for the credibility of the concept of substantial equivalents. On this basis alone, it is critical that any foods presented to our consumers, which are genetically engineered or contain genetically modified organisms of any kind, must be clearly labelled and contain on the label the exact contents of the so-called novel food. Every human being has a right to be absolutely clear about what they eat in that regard.
We cannot trust the multinationals, which are pushing genetic engineering and are greatly involved in the food industry, with safeguarding the health of human beings. Greed for profit dominates multinationals. Some of them, such as Monsanto, have extremely unsavoury histories. Monsanto, which is one of the giants of genetic engineering, manufactured large quantities of agent orange. That diabolic substance laid waste to millions of acres of foliage in Vietnam, caused horrific cancers and diseases in the Vietnamese population and in Vietnam veterans of the United States Army and mutations and diseases which persist to this day. We cannot give multinationals any benefit of the doubt. In some cases they have lied outright about the veracity of experiments and what they showed.
This calls for the legal underpinning of the right of the consumer to be forewarned and to be  informed of the exact contents of what they eat. It is a matter of life and death in some cases and a matter of the health and safety of our people. All foods, imported or sold here, must be clearly labelled, that must be underpinned in law and there must be substantial penalties for any person or agency which does not do that. I hope the Minister will accept my amendment.
Mr. Bradford: I am generally sympathetic to Deputy Higgins's amendment. It relates to labelling and the consumers' right to know the contents of what they purchase. Deputy Higgins commenced a debate on genetic engineering per se. While it may be necessary at an early stage to have a debate on the wider aspects of genetic engineering, we are talking about the food safety authority, the protection of consumers and their right to know the contents of what they eat.
Section 12 relates to the promotion of standards. Under that section we should define as clearly as possible the consumers' right to know what is being consumed. There is an increasing awareness and fear of genetically engineered foodstuffs. Part of that fear may be irrational because the debate on this matter has not concluded, but the public desire full information about the food chain and genetically engineered foodstuffs. A commitment given on this issue has not been met by the Government. Many of the claims and arguments put forward by those who are concerned and publicly protesting about genetic engineering could be addressed if the Government put in place what it promised last year in relation to genetic engineering. While we continue to allow a void in this area, the public will continue to have fears about it. If the food safety authority is to promote the highest standards and to ensure that, at all times, consumers know what is in the foodstuffs being consumed, it is important the food labelling system should clearly indicate genetically modified foods.
A number of years ago there was a public debate on the question of the danger of various food additives. Many of the difficulties presented were resolved when a labelling system that included additives was put in place and a reasonable number of people were reassured, but there is no such system in place for genetically modified foodstuffs. When we are putting in place a new food safety authority, it would be helpful to the consumer and appropriate to address this issue by putting in place a transparent food labelling system that would include genetically modified foodstuffs.
We must positively consider what the amendment states about labelling genetically modified foodstuffs and I hope the Minister will respond to it in a reasonable manner. We are not dealing with the wider aspects of genetically engineered foodstuffs, although such a debate should take place at the earliest possible opportunity, but with letting the consumer know if a foodstuff has been derived from genetic engineering.
Ms Shortall: I do not want to engage in a debate on genetic engineering. This Bill is about the consumers' right to know what ingredients are in the foods they buy. The area of genetic engineering of food is one of growing concern among the public and there is likely to be a greater use of genetically engineered ingredients in foods as developments, if they can be called that, come about in science. At the very least we must bear in mind there is a potential danger to people's health in the use of genetically engineered foods. That is a non-judgmental statement.
Consumers have a right to know the ingredients in what they eat. As Deputy Bradford said, we established that consumers have a right to know the various additives in foods. There is widespread public concern, especially among those whose family members suffer from various allergies, that consumers do not know the contents of what they purchase. For that reason it is essential we guarantee a person's right to know what is in the food purchased. We should support this amendment on labelling.
Agreeing to this amendment does not make a statement about genetic engineering, but it establishes that people have a right to know the contents of what they purchase and, consequently, a right to make a choice about the foodstuffs they buy. That is the very minimum to which we should agree in relation to this very fast growing area, about which we and, I am sure many medical people, would admit we know very little. Because of that we must accept there are potential dangers and we should afford at least minimum protection by ensuring genetically modified foods are indicated on labels.
Mr. Gormley: It is regrettable that the only parties which have raised concerns about genetic engineering are the Green and the Socialist Parties. Deputy Naughten is smiling but he was quite critical of me, as was Deputy Upton, when this matter arose previously. It is important to have a comprehensive debate on this issue. There is widespread concern about the food we eat because it is so basic and intrinsic to how we live our lives.
Countries such as Austria and Italy have succeeded in banning GMOs. Ireland should follow suit and that was promised by the Fianna Fáil Party in Opposition. The promise was opportunistically made before the election and was quickly abandoned afterwards. Its excuse was summed up in the phrase “that was then but this is now”. People will be extremely cynical about such election ploys in the future.
Mr. Gormley: I am endeavouring to outline the  background of this matter. Monsanto has huge influence so we must put down an amendment in this regard. I hope all parties in the House will support it.
There are what some geneticists and scientists call pleiotropic or unforeseen effects as a result of genetic engineering. They have been seen in Scotland where genetically modified salmon turned green. Usually I like to see things turn green but this was one instance where it was unacceptable. There are problems with toxins and allergens and that is the worry.
This amendment is not alarmist or scaremongering. It is a sensible approach which adopts a precautionary principle. Consumers have a right to know. Monsanto will claim to agree with the principle of labelling but I do not believe it is enthusiastic about it. Consumers will not eat genetically modified food because they have concerns about it. If consumers know what is in food they will be sensible about eating it. The genetic engineering lobby does not want consumers to know what is in food. Genetic engineers want gene transfer to take place. They want products to be a big mish-mash so that consumers will not have a choice. There are already moves in the United States to relax the regulations in relation to organic farming.
Irish politicians have a duty to legislate for the health of individuals. Science has often produced so-called fantastic developments in the past. Members might recall when DDT first came on the market and how it was celebrated as a fantastic scientific development.
Mr. Gormley: There were advertising campaigns which featured children, fruit and other products being sprayed with DDT. Now nobody would touch DDT with a bargepole. I hope we will learn from previous mistakes, particularly in relation to food. I also hope Deputies Naughten and Shortall will support the amendment.
Mr. Naughten: I have no problem with labelling food and the Fine Gael Party will support the amendment. It is vitally important that there is proper labelling of every food product, whether it is genetically modified or produced from other sources. However, the amendment does not include genetically modified ingredients. Aspartamine, for example, is produced by a genetically modifed organism but the product is not genetically modified. Another example outside the food industry is insulin which is produced by a genetically modified organism but the product is the same as insulin produced by humans.
I agree there can be unforeseen effects as a result of genetically modifying organisms. However, there are unforeseen effects attached to everything. If somebody leaves Leinster House this evening in a car, they do not know if they will arrive again in the morning or whether there  will be a traffic accident. There is no such thing as a 100 per cent guarantee of safety and no product is ever completely safe. Eating chicken carries a risk of salmonella while there is a risk of BSE in beef. The risks are small but they exist no matter what one eats or what one does.
Labelling is important because it is important that consumers know exactly what they are getting in a product. IBEC has drawn up a labelling system in consultation with the industry. It is important that the industry is brought on side in this regard and that other groups who are concerned about genetic engineering are consulted. There must be a balanced debate on the subject and all views must be taken into account. I hope the Government will accept this amendment.
Dr. Moffatt: I understand the Deputies' concern about genetically modified food. It is a complex area so it is little wonder that the consumer is, at best, uncomfortable about the issue. However, the purpose of the Bill is to establish a framework in which an independent authority can function. It is not about detailed operational matters even if they are concerned with important issues such as this.
Genetically modified foods are the subject of specific legislation, the European Union regulation EC 258/97 which is included in the First Schedule of the Bill. The interim food authority has already established a GMO group, which is a subcommittee of its scientific committee, and my Department has requested the authority to advise on the various issues touching upon this area. The subcommittee on GMOs has already met various parties on both sides of the issue. In addition, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, is conducting a policy review on the wider aspects of genetic modification.
The GMO issue is not confined to food safety. It is of wider environmental significance and there are ethical as well as scientific issues to be considered. The situation is not being ignored but it is not appropriate to include this amendment in the Bill. Therefore, I do not accept the amendment.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): I am surprised and disappointed at the attitude of the Government to my proposal. As the Minister of State said, the issue of GMOs has wide environmental and ethical  significance. A holistic discussion is long overdue in this House. It is unacceptable that this extremely sinister development is continuing apace without a proper discussion by the elected representatives of the people. A fundamental debate is needed and it is incumbent on Deputies to have such a debate.
This issue runs parallel to the generation of power by nuclear fission. That is how important it is. In the early days some sections thought this was the answer to so many problems of humanity but we now know how many problems it has imposed on the backs of humanity as the people of Chernobyl and many other areas know to their cost. We will not make the same mistake by giving powerful vested interests who are in the field to make massive profits from genetic engineering the benefit of the doubt. They are prepared to dice with the health of the people.
I am surprised at the attitude of the Minister of State in view of the crystal clear position of Fianna Fáil as outlined in a press statement issued jointly on 26 April 1997 by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh.
We are deeply concerned about the development and sale of genetically modified organisms whether they are used in agriculture, food or food processing. It is our position that it is premature to release genetically modified organisms into the environment or to market foods which contain any genetically modified  ingredient, or where genetically modified organisms have been used in the production of food.
Current scientific knowledge is inadequate to protect the consumer and the environment from the unpredictable and potentially disastrous side effects which may appear immediately or at any time in the future. [Can the urgency expressed in the statement be detected in what the Minister of State had to say or in current Government policy?] The principle of “substantial equivalence” governing the testing and labelling of genetically modified foods requires that only known potential hazards are tested. Therefore unexpected toxins and allergens will be identified only when a unique health crisis occurs. This will be too late for the victims.
At almost the 12th hour will the Minister of State reconsider and accept this extremely reasonable amendment? To respond to Deputy Bradford, my view on multinationals and what they represent is clear. The amendment calls for labelling and information to protect the consumer. If the Government will not accede to my request, I call on the Opposition to support me.
Dr. Moffatt: There are EU regulations in place. A subcommittee of the Food Safety Authority has been established to look at this issue. The Deputy may quote statements in regard to allergens that may be associated with genetically modified foods but others will say the opposite. For example, lactobacillus which is being produced in Cork, has been shown to have immunological properties which may be of use in the future. I am certain we will again look at this subject. Suffice it to say we are happy with what has been put forward.
|Barnes, Monica.||Higgins, Jim.|
|Barrett, Seán.||Higgins, Joe.|
|Bell, Michael.||Higgins, Michael.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Broughan, Thomas.||Kenny, Enda.|
|Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).||Lowry, Michael.|
|Bruton, Richard.||McGahon, Brendan.|
|Burke, Liam.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||McGrath, Paul.|
|Cosgrave, Michael.||McManus, Liz.|
|Crawford, Seymour.||Mitchell, Gay.|
|Creed, Michael.||Mitchell, Jim.|
|Currie, Austin.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|De Rossa, Proinsias.||Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Naughten, Denis.|
|Dukes, Alan.||Neville, Dan.|
|Durkan, Bernard.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Farrelly, John.||O'Shea, Brian.|
|Ferris, Michael.||O'Sullivan, Jan.|
|Finucane, Michael.||Owen, Nora.|
|Flanagan, Charles.||Penrose, William.|
|Gilmore, Éamon.||Perry, John.|
|Gormley, John.||Quinn, Ruairí.|
|Hayes, Brian.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Shatter, Alan.||Stagg, Emmet.|
|Sheehan, Patrick.||Timmins, Billy.|
|Shortall, Róisín.||Wall, Jack.|
|Ahern, Michael.||Lawlor, Liam.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Lenihan, Brian.|
|Ardagh, Seán.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|Blaney, Harry.||Martin, Micheál.|
|Brady, Johnny.||McCreevy, Charlie.|
|Brady, Martin.||McDaid, James.|
|Brennan, Matt.||McGennis, Marian.|
|Brennan, Séamus.||McGuinness, John.|
|Briscoe, Ben.||Moffatt, Thomas.|
|Byrne, Hugh.||Molloy, Robert.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Moloney, John.|
|Carey, Pat.||Moynihan, Donal.|
|Collins, Michael.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Coughlan, Mary.||O'Dea, Willie.|
|Davern, Noel.||O'Donnell, Liz.|
|de Valera, Síle.||O'Donoghue, John.|
|Dennehy, John.||O'Flynn, Noel.|
|Ellis, John.||O'Hanlon, Rory.|
|Fleming, Seán.||O'Keeffe, Batt.|
|Flood, Chris.||O'Kennedy, Michael.|
|Foley, Denis.||O'Malley, Desmond.|
|Hanafin, Mary.||O'Rourke, Mary.|
|Haughey, Seán.||Power, Seán.|
|Healy-Rae, Jackie.||Roche, Dick.|
|Jacob, Joe.||Ryan, Eoin.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Kelleher, Billy.||Smith, Michael.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Wade, Eddie.|
|Killeen, Tony.||Wallace, Dan.|
|Kirk, Séamus.||Wallace, Mary.|
|Kitt, Michael.||Woods, Michael.|
|Kitt, Tom.||Wright, G. V.|
The Food Safety Authority must not represent just the different interests which will want reassurances on food safety for the reasons alluded to in the debate. The authority must also be reminded of its enormous responsibility. Amendment No. 19 refers to the need to insert “including independent regulatory bodies and organisations representing farming, consumer, community, environmental and other interests” after “organisations”.
We were focusing on genetic engineering as a concern to citizens, and it is also a cause of concern to farmers. It represents an increasing concentration of control over the production of food and is being allowed to take place even though before the last election Fianna Fáil called for a moratorium on the release of genetically modified organisms. It is time Members stopped sleepwalking along the path built by multinational companies for their own ends. Those companies control more and more of the food we grow, buy and eat. This amendment spells out that the organisations which must be considered when it comes to food assurance schemes and the promotion of standards must include the farming interests. They are under enormous pressure, particularly in the horticultural sector, in the face of large multinational retailers coming to Ireland.
Consumer interests are often taken for granted when retailers talk of giving the consumer choice. The consumer wants quality; choice is not people's top demand. Sometimes choice takes precedence over quality and the consumer must be able to voice an opinion on that issue.
We seem to be oblivious to the fact that 42 per cent of the villages and towns in Britain do not have grocery retail shops, which have been forced to close by out of town shopping centres. That is damaging to communities, because life deteriorates as a result. Environmental concerns were debated in relation to the last amendment, but I do not mean what is usually thought of as the environment, the fields and trees outside. I am referring to the human environment. Human health is directly linked to wider environmental interest. Scientific studies show that increasing reliance on food produced chemically is causing a serious and consistent decrease in sperm count  world-wide. This is also related to oestrogen in drinking water but is very closely linked to the production of food. The people bucking that trend and who are not suffering a decreasing sperm count are those who work in the organic farming sector.
Environmental interests have a legitimate right to be represented on account of that insight, if no other. Monsanto has been mentioned in the debate on genetic engineering. That company is in the business of ensuring that its own produce is more widely used because of the experiments it is doing with sugar beet at various locations in Ireland.
Public confidence must be restored because it has been severely dented by the Irish record on food safety. I hope this amendment is accepted so that the public will be reassured to know we value the opinions of the different interest groups that should be represented.
Mr. Bradford: The Bill claims that the Food Safety Authority will consult organisations it considers appropriate. I am sympathetic to Deputy Sargent's arguments, and I presume that organisations considered appropriate would include those bodies mentioned in his amendment. It is important that farming, consumer, community, environmental and other groups are fully consulted before any proposed food safety assurance schemes are put in place.
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