The imaginary EU GM-Honey crisis is resolved

Disclaimer: all opinions in this column reflect the views of their authors’, not of PLC.

The European Commission proposed new rules in September regarding the presence of genetically modified pollen in honey. The new proposals consider that pollen in honey is a 'natural constituent', thereby contradicting a previous ruling by the European Court of Justice from September 2011 that considered it an 'ingredient', writes John Davison.

John Davison is the retired director of research at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Versailles.

In September 2011 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) made a decision regarding the affair Bablock vs Freistaat Bayern in which the honey produced on a Bavarian farm was reportedly found to contain genetically modified (GM) pollen from a nearby experimental plot growing the EC-authorised genetically modified maize.

A discussion of this decision has been given previously and will not be repeated in detail here. The surprising part of the EJC decision was that GM pollen was considered to be an 'ingredient' of honey, as distinct from a 'component' or an 'unavoidable adventitious presence'. The validity of this ECJ decision has been questioned by legal experts.

Under the ECJ decision all honey containing any traces of GM-pollen (with no lower limit) could not be legally put on the market without special authorisation. This would apply to honey made in Europe and to foreign imported honey.

The ECJ decision would thus imply expensive testing of all honey - GM or not, since one cannot know without testing it - sold in the EU and would effectively remove honey from the EU marketplace and eliminate many small producers.

It would also effectively eliminate GM-field trials in the EU since no scientific research organisation could afford the risk of expensive court cases and possible damages.

In September 2012 (i.e. after one year of deliberation) the Commission proposed new rules which concluded that the ECJ decision was wrong and that pollen is a 'natural constituent' of honey and not an 'ingredient'.

The EC has thus deliberated for one year on the difference between a 'constituent' and an 'ingredient', a debate akin to “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”. Thus all of the catastrophic economic side-effects of the ECJ decision may soon be eliminated and life goes on as previously.

The above decisions depend upon the definitions of words like 'ingredient' and 'component' that have found themselves incorporated into legal texts and now assume proportions certainly never dreamed of by the authors of the original texts.

Thus rather than spending one year defining and redefining words that are by their nature subjective, it would be better to remember the purpose of the original legal texts. With respect to the presence of GM material in food, two concepts are important: food safety and food labelling.

Food safety is the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority. EFSA gave an unambiguous opinion in 2010: "the genetic modification in MON810 maize does not constitute an additional health risk if MON810 maize pollen were to replace maize pollen from non-GM maize in or as food." 

Food labelling is not concerned with food safety, since all food placed on the market has already been subjected to EFSA recommendations and EC authorisations. Rather, food labelling is concerned with the right of the public to know what they are eating. Since labelling is not required for food containing less that 0.9% GMO material, honey containing traces of pollen from Commission-authorised GM crops lies outside of the labelling laws.

In conclusion, it is legitimate ask what the ECJ and the Commission believe that they have been doing for the past year regarding the presence of GM-pollen in honey and whether they are qualified to make these decisions? Certainly they have not been trying to protect the EU consumer since the EFSA recommendation was clear: no food safety crisis ever existed.

On the other hand, the ECJ decision did precipitate an artificial  economic EU honey crisis which the EU executive now wishes to avoid by redefining words. As the author Lewis Carrol wrote in 1871: "'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'"