Open letter to UK's FSA is published
A group of experts representing business, farming, certification, academia, science and civil society have lodged a formal complaint against the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), raising serious concerns about its public consultation process on genetically modified "precision bred" organisms (PBOs). GMWatch is among the signatories.
The FSA consultation, launched 8 November 2023, aims to elicit the views of consumers, UK and international food/feed businesses and industry trade bodies, competent authorities (UK local authorities and port health authorities), non-government organisations/civil society and third-party assurance organisations on the FSA’s plans to create a new regulatory regime for genetically modified precision bred organisms, as part of the Genetic Technology Act 2023.
The two-tiered system proposed by the FSA will allow the majority of PBOs to enter the marketplace without a formal application process, without labelling or assessment and without end-to-end traceability. It shifts the responsibility and liability for traceability and avoidance of PBO contamination away from regulatory authorities and onto businesses and other stakeholders.
The complaint, submitted to the Agency and copied to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), to whom it reports, alleges multiple abuses of Cabinet Office Consultation Principles and serious misrepresentation of the facts, which call into question the integrity of the Agency and its stated goal of transparency and truthfulness.
Misrepresenting the facts, misleading the public
The ten signatories – including familiar and trusted names in the farming and food world such as Doves Farm Organic, Riverford Organic Farmers, and Sheepdrove Organic Farm – contend that that information within the consultation pack is misleading, specifically regarding the nature of precision breeding and the science around its safety. The complaint questions 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, the group alleges that the FSA has, in several instances, seriously misrepresented the results of its own public surveys, and of a literature review it commissioned into detection of precision bred organisms, in order to create a narrative designed to influence the outcome of the consultation.
Another key concern emphasised in the complaint is the overly technical nature of the consultation materials, creating a barrier for the general public, and indeed anyone who has not been immersed in the PBO debate, to fully engage and contribute meaningfully. The group contends that accessibility and clarity are paramount for genuine public participation.
In addition, the complaint addresses the perceived lack of time allocated for respondents to comprehensively analyse the consultation pack and respond to the consultation (8 weeks instead of the gold standard 12 weeks). It also argues that the timing of the consultation, coming over the Christmas and New Year period, will mean potential respondents may not be able to engage. For businesses, for instance, the holiday period is one of the busiest times of the year and a significant source of annual income. Cabinet Office Principles specifically advise against consultations over holiday periods.
The complaint also criticises the FSA for failing to perform a full impact assessment on its plans to remove labelling and traceability from genetically modified "precision bred" organisms in the food and feed system. Impact assessment is a critical component in evaluating potential consequences – across the whole range of stakeholders – of regulatory decisions related to precision bred organisms.
Instead, FSA has relied heavily on a highly discredited impact assessment performed by Defra in 2022 and rated as “not fit for purpose” by the Regulatory Policy Committee. The deregulation of genetically modified PBOs and the removal of labelling and end-to-end traceability in the food system, the complainants argue, will have a domino effect throughout the food system, affecting non-GM, organic, artisanal and natural food producers who wish to avoid PBOs, and removing consumers’ right to choose whether or not to purchase and consume these foods, as well as farmers’ right to choose whether to feed them to their livestock.
Given the number of concerns, the signatories demand an immediate withdrawal and postponement of the current consultation until these problems can be solved and a fair, transparent, and accessible public engagement process can be initiated that aligns with established guidelines and principles.
Experts speak out
The Kindersley family of Sheepdrove Organic Farm said:
“We know that it is vitally important for our customers (and therefore critical to our and indeed other organic businesses) that they are able to choose food which has not been produced with GMOs of any kind, including so-called PBOs. Adequate traceability and labelling are vital for this. We believe that the FSA’s Consultation on its proposals for the regulation of the GMOs, which are to be called precision bred organisms, or PBOs, is flawed and misleading on these issues. It does not fulfil the FSA’s mission to be an independent body protecting food safety and providing consumers with impartial information.”
Steven Jacobs, Business Development Manager, Organic Farmers and Growers, said:
“Any new technology carries risk and using a technology designed to artificially disrupt the genetic material of an organism on products that people will eat without a rigorous, transparent and independent assessment framework carries obvious risks.
"Given the current minimal level of oversight proposed we are asking that the FSA fully recognise the need to alert the public and the business community to these risks, some of which have already been recorded (e.g. US FDA dehorned cattle). Evidence is building that when using CRISPR technology to make the alternations to animal and plant DNA there can be a propensity to highly unpredictable and much greater disruption of the DNA than is often intended.
"Organic regulations strictly prohibit all GMOs, including these new genetically engineered or ‘Precision Bred’ organisms, because we prefer to work with and enhance natural processes and ecosystems.
"The FSA has for more than two decades worked hard to protect the public and guard against the removal of vital safeguards around the safety and security of our food supply. Without full disclosure and proper rigorous independent oversight of the benefits and potential risks of releasing this material produced from a rapidly evolving science, that will be unknowingly consumed by the whole population, there are justifiable concerns that the FSA cannot fulfil their mandate.”
Pat Thomas, Director, Beyond GM/ A Bigger Conversation, said:
“Public consultations are a valuable way to understand citizen’s views, but they must be conducted with integrity and honesty. We are concerned that this consultation falls short of the standards we should be able to expect from the Food Standards Agency, whose motto is ‘food you can trust’. We are also concerned given that the FSA has already voted through its proposed regulatory changes, that this consultation has been designed to take the box of public engagement without any commitment or possibility that public views will be taken into account or have the power to alter the outcome. This too is a betrayal of public confidence.”
Shane Holland, Executive Chairman, Slow Food in the UK, said:
“It is a false assumption that any business that wishes to avoid genetically modified precision bred ingredients would solely be within the organic supply chain. There will be a significant cost within the artisan food business who may buy from producers who are too small to merit obtaining organic certification but who nether the less wish to ensure that their products can demonstrate that they have a non-GM supply chain. There is likely not sufficient additional testing capacity for these businesses, and the costs would be prohibitive. These businesses employ substantial numbers of people and also – despite typically being smaller – do also export goods; exports which would be at risk without a supply chain audit. This lack of traceability also affects the larger food businesses who export their products, who may have to demonstrate their products to be GM/PBO free. No analysis on the effect of lost export sales from all food businesses, or the artisan food sector has been proposed or carried out.”
Erik Millstone, Emeritus Professor of Science Policy, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, said:
“The government’s policy on gene edited foods is dangerously irresponsible. Ministers are favouring short-term commercial interests of biotechnology corporations and neglecting the protection of public and environmental health. Ministers are pretending to have sufficient robust knowledge about the consequences of commercialising the new technology, while ignoring all the experts and the evidence indicating that our knowledge is rudimentary, dreadfully incomplete and uncertain. They are only listening to the advice of those who have been selected to tell them what they want to hear. Their policy is a recipe for serious failures.”
Claire Robinson, Co-Director, GMWatch, said:
“The FSA’s consultation pack on the regulation of new GMOs violates the standards of the UK government’s Consultation Principles. It is marred by false and misleading statements, which all tend in the same direction: To try to justify the UK government’s determination to hide new GMOs in the food and farming system and remove any meaningful regulatory oversight. The consultation document is long and uses mystifying acronyms, as well as references to various laws on food and agriculture, making it inaccessible to all but a few specialists. It turns its back on the public’s clear demand for labelling and misrepresents the state of the science on gene editing. The FSA must go back to the drawing board and re-launch a fair consultation in the New Year in line with the Consultation Principles.”
Michael Antoniou, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Toxicology at King’s College London, said:
“Not only is this consultation misleading and anti-democratic, but it also misrepresents the science underpinning gene editing. Gene editing is prone to causing a wide range of unintended DNA damage, altering patterns of gene function and consequently the biochemistry of the organism, which could lead to the production of unexpected toxins and allergens. Citizens should be protected against these risks. Yet as the FSA’s consultation materials show, the agency has produced a weak regulatory framework that will not oblige the developer to investigate their products for unintended genetic damage or compositional changes that could endanger health or the environment. So products will reach the market that have been inadequately evaluated for safety. Furthermore, the FSA’s insistence in its consultation materials that no GMO or “precision bred” labelling will be required means that the consumer will not be aware that any adverse reactions they may experience could be linked to a gene-edited product and therefore they will not report it. Labelling alerts the consumer to the potential cause of any adverse reaction and enables the regulator to more easily trace the source of the problem.”
View and download the full text of the complaint here.
Signatories to the letter are: Pat Thomas (Director, Beyond GM/A Bigger Conversation); Rob Haward (Managing Director, Riverford Organic Farmers); Clare Marriage (Chief Executive Officer, Doves Farm Foods); Shane Holland (Executive Chairman, Slow Food in the UK); Erik Millstone (Emeritus Professor of Science Policy, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex); The Kindersley Family, Founders, Sheepdrove Organic Farm); Claire Robinson (Co-Director, GMWatch); Steven Jacobs, Business Development Manager, Organic Farmers and Growers); Michael Antoniou (Professor of Molecular Genetics and Toxicology, King’s College London); Natalie Bliss (Technical Manager, Product Certification Schemes, Food Chain ID).