The EU's chronic incapacity to lift national bans on GMO products is under intense scrutiny by the World Trade Organisation. But EU officials insist that the present biotech approval rules, in place since 2004, fully comply with WTO requirements.

The preliminary findings of a WTO dispute panel, circulated on Tuesday (7 February), appear to support the US in a dispute with the EU over the approval of biotech food (EurActiv, 8 Feb. 2006).

The 1,050 page document, the largest ever to come out of a WTO dispute panel, concluded that the EU moratorium on GM products, effective between October 1999 and August 2003, was illegal.

New EU rules to approve GM products were agreed in 2004, partly to address US concerns. But the US claimed that the approval procedure is still too lengthy and "not based on scientific evidence" as required by the WTO.

Eight GMO bans are still in place in Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Greece despite scientific approval from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). The Commission repeatedly attempted to lift these bans but was unable to do so because of a loophole in the procedure.

Under the EU's current rules, national bans can only be lifted if they are backed by a committee of national experts or, in the last resort, by the member states in the EU Council of Ministers. If member states fail to reject or uphold the ban, the matter is referred to the EFSA for a further opinion and fed back to the Commission for a further round of expert advice and member state approval. 

It is still unclear whether the WTO panel's final decision, due out early next year at the latest, would call into question this procedure.