Food Standards Agency on PBOs: ‘We’re Not Listening’

March 8, 2024 by Staff Reporter

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has just published the final report on its public consultation on the sale of genetically modified precision bred (PBOs) food and animal feed in England.

The consultation, which ran from 8 November 2023 to 8 January 2024 sought public views on plans to remove labelling and traceability from these types of GMOs. Although it was a technically complex consultation, it still received 412 responses.

Our early impression of the main report and the summary of responses is that they are openly disdainful of citizen (‘consumer’) views and fail to live up to the FSA’s mandate to protect the public interest.

In summing up the responses, the FSA has chosen to weaponise citizens’ opposition to the Genetic Technology Act. It notes, correctly, that many citizens oppose the aims of the Act (for more on this see this report). The implication throughout is that this prejudices and, therefore invalidates, their responses.

The fact that citizen respondents disagreed with the aims of the Genetic Technology Act is a cynical, bad faith way of filtering and interpreting their views. A good faith way of interpreting them would be that citizens in the UK are – and have been for decades – consistent in their rejection of unlabelled, unmonitored, unregulated GMOs in the food system. It is in the public interest to respond to and act on these views, but that is not what the FSA has done.

Click to enlarge. Respondents highlighted in yellow are known to be ‘pro-GMO’.

Instead, it concludes that FSA should proceed with its deregulatory plans which allow developers to self-certify the safety of their products and then allow these products into the food system, unlabelled and unmonitored.

In defending its conclusions, the FSA also dismisses the views of civil society groups (‘NGOs’) that disagree with these proposals as, essentially, ‘anti’-GMO ‘vested interests’. But it has not taken the same view on the pro-GM civil society groups and businesses (see list opposite) that supported its proposals. Indeed, although the FSA report says that it treated all responses equally, it is the minority view of these groups that underpins the FSA’s decision to push ahead with its deregulatory agenda.

We are disturbed that, in this day and age, those who have legitimate questions and concerns about how GMOs in the food system are regulated, are still being maligned as ‘anti’-GMO. This is a very tired, lazy and unhelpful caricature that only serves to support a broken system that prioritises the views of a single group while marginalising those with other priorities and other legitimate expertise and knowledge.

A clear message

The headline views of those citizen/consumers  – who made up 66% of all respondents – as well as the overall responses, were definitive. Here’s a compare and contrast:

94% of citizen respondents who did not support or were neutral about the Genetic Technology Act also disagreed/strongly disagreed with FSA plans for a two-tiered self-certification ‘assessment’ of PBOs; 92% disagreed/strongly disagreed the proposal for ‘Tier 1’ (‘fast track’ approval) proposal was feasible.

  • In the overall responses 71% disagreed/strongly disagreed with the two-tier proposals and 69% didn’t think ‘Tier 1’ proposals were feasible.

83% of those same citizens disagreed/strongly disagreed that an extra check prior to marketing of so-called ‘Tier 2’ PBOs (organisms which the Agency might have additional queries about) met the FSA’s policy objectives  of ‘Food you can trust’ and ‘Food that is what it says it is’; 85% disagreed/strongly disagreed that the ‘Tier 2’ proposal was feasible.

  • This compares to the overall responses in which 73% disagreed/strongly disagreed an extra check prior to marketing of so-called ‘Tier 2’ PBOs met the FSA’s policy objectives;76% disagreed/strongly disagreed the ‘Tier 2’ proposal was feasible.

80% of those citizens disagreed/strongly disagreed that an online public register (which is meant to replace labelling) met the FSA objectives.

  • Overall responses for this question were that 61% disagreed/disagreed strongly that the public register meets the FSA policy objectives.

92% of those citizens disagreed/strongly disagreed that FSA’s proposed enforcement regimes would be effective in meeting its objectives; 92% disagreed/strongly disagreed that the proposals were practical or deliverable.

  • Overall responses showed that 70% disagreed/disagreed strongly that the enforcement regime will be effective in meeting FSA objectives; 71% disagreed/disagreed strongly that enforcement regime is practical or deliverable.

Whether viewed through the lens of citizen/consumer responses or overall responses, the majority of respondents felt the FSA proposals were inadequate. The message is clear: Citizens want the FSA to do more to label, trace and monitor any kind of GMO – including so-called PBOs – in the food system.

In addition to rejecting citizens’ views on deregulation, the FSA report details a number of important issues, which it received a high volume of comments on, but which it has deemed outside the scope of the consultation.

These include non-safety related labelling, traceability/detection issues, the contested definition of PBOs, the lack of independence of its Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, the effects deregulation would have on the UK internal market and on the organic supply chain and the misleading technical guidance that accompanied the consultation.

These issues are, of course, not really out of scope but integral to a joined up approach to regulation.

Not listening

We have been in constant engagement with the FSA over the last two years on the issues of labelling, assessment, monitoring, food safety and the notion of ‘food you can trust’. Our engagement prepared us for a prejudicial response to this consultation, but this level of disdain for strongly expressed public views is shocking even to us.

When the consultation was launched we joined with familiar and trusted names in the farming and food world including Doves Farm Organic, Riverford Organic Farmers, Sheepdrove Organic Farm – in a joint complaint which contended that information in the consultation pack was misleading, specifically regarding the nature of precision breeding and the science around its safety. The complaint also questioned the claimed independence of the FSA’s Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) and its subcommittee, involved in providing scientific advice to the FSA on the safety of PBOs. Moreover, we said that the FSA, in several instances, seriously misrepresented the results of its own public surveys, and a literature review it commissioned into detection of precision bred organisms, in order to influence the outcome of the consultation.

FSA had plenty of time to consider and address these issues, but it chose not to do so in a timely manner. After two months – and, crucially, after the consultation had closed – our complaint was rejected.

This was a blow but, as Beyond GM Director Pat Thomas notes, ignoring the citizen views expressed via the consultation has even more worrying implications:

“It seems clear that the outcome of this consultation was decided before it was even launched and that in spite of its claim to be an independent agency, the FSA has made no attempt to make an independent investigation or come to an independent judgement about the consequences of deregulation of genetically modified precision bred organisms in the food and feed system. The FSA’s disregard for UK citizens’ views is contemptable and the implications for the integrity of and trust in our food system are enormous. I fear the FSA has become a victim of regulatory capture, cowering before those it’s supposed to regulate. Under pressure from government, it is a regulatory agency that, seemingly, no longer cares to regulate and no longer cares to fulfil its primary mandate ‘to protect the interests of the public’.”

Thomas notes that citizens should continue to press the FSA on this issue and those who are unhappy with the FSA’s conclusions (perhaps especially if they took the time to contribute to the consultation), can post questions to the FSA Board prior to its regular meeting, which is open to the public and takes place on 20 March in Leeds (see link at the bottom of this page