The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that Monsanto's GM maize can be placed on the market without Commission authorisation. However, Italy can impose a temporary ban on suspicion of risks.
Genes are inserted into the maize in question to render it resistant to certain herbicides and pests. Although the genetically modified DNA is destroyed during the processing of the maize, Italian scientists found residues of GMO proteins which promted the Italian government to ban the products.
Monsanto had marketed the maize in Italy under the so-called "simplified procedure", i.e. without seeking the authorisation of the Commission, claiming that the maize was similar to the conventional variety which had already been approved as safe by regulatory authorities. British and French agencies had approved this new variety on behalf of the whole EU.
Following the ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on 9 September 2003, both sides claimed victory.
The ECJ underpinnedMonsanto's choice of the simplified procedure, maintaining that the GM maize could be put on the market without Commission authorisation, as it was substantially equivalent to the conventional variety, and there was no evidence of a risk to consumers. The court said that the detection of transgenic protein did not undermine the simplified authorisation, and was not in itself a basis for banning the product.EuropaBiowelcomed the ruling, stating that "no justification on health or environmental safety grounds was provided by Italy to justify the ban."
However,Italywas confirmed in its temporary ban, as the court considered its preventive measures legitimate: a Member State can temporarily restrict or suspend the marketing of foods in its territory if it has a sound reason to suspect that the product is unsafe for humans or the environment. This verdict was welcomed by the Italian government as well as NGOs. "The European Commission has systematically denied the right of Member States to restrict the free circulation of GMOs, even when the reasons invoked are legitimate", saidGreenpeace, calling for Member States not to let themselves bully into accepting new GMO products.
Italian courts will now have to rule if there is enough sound scientific evidence of the risks that the maize variety poses to human health or the environment for Italy to sustain a ban. Monsanto predicts that the Italian courts will overturn the ban for lack of evidence.
This court case is part of the scientific and political battle over GM foods in the EU, which NGOs fear could pose risks to human health and the environment. Italy is one of a number of EU Member States upholding an unofficial moratorium on new GMO products, but experts believe that this ban will be lifted early next year.