Mark Townsend
The Observer, Sunday June 8, 2003

Supermarkets have told Tony Blair they will refuse to stock genetically modified foods, even if he manages to persuade a sceptical public to accept GM produce.   The British Retail Consortium, which represents 90 per cent of high-street shops, has sent an unequivocal warning to the Government that GM food is not commercially viable in the UK.

It argues that, while consumer antipathy towards the biotech industry remains so entrenched, major retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury's will resist any move to stock GM products.

Their united stance threatens the Prime Minister with the embarrassing scenario where GM crops are commercialised, yet no major outlets will sell them.   

David Southwell, of the BRC, confirmed it had made its position clear to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency.    'The customer is where the real power lies,' he said. 'Supermarkets are not going to give shelf space to something that doesn't sell.'

Sainsbury's, whose former chief Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, remains a staunch advocate of GM, confirmed it been in talks with the Government over GM food.  The spokesman said the supermarket giant had no choice but to continue rejecting the technology as long as customers 'made it clear' they did not want GM produce.

Continued hostility to the biotech industry follows the launch of last week's national debate on GM food and crops, condemned as a 'PR stunt'.  Critics add that the failure by the Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett to explain how the debate would affect the Government's decision on commercialisation has further undermined its integrity.  Her admission arrives amid mounting concern over the safety of GM food and in particular the Government's apparent refusal to commission an exhaustive study into its health effects.

Dr Vyvyan Howard, a toxicologist at Liverpool University and member of the Government's advisory committee on pesticides, believes the decision may have arisen from fears that they 'were scared of what they might find'.    He added: 'There is no logical reason for not doing this type of research other than they may be frightened of the answer,' he added.

Last year the FSA commissioned the world's first known trial of GM foods on human volunteers. It found that genes from GM food survive in the human gut and may be picked up by bacteria in the body, raising fears that consumers may contract infections resistant to antibiotics.

The FSA's failure to follow up the potentially critical findings with further research has come under fire, with Arpad Pusztai, the scientist who first raised fears about the safety of GM foods, yesterday calling on the head of the FSA, Sir John Krebs, to resign.

Supporters of biotechnology point to the US, where GM food has been on sale for years with no evidence of adverse health effects linked to its consumption. Opponents counter that it remains impossible to know what the effects of eating GM long-term are because consumers have never been monitored for its effects.

A Defra spokesman said GM foods were subject to a detailed safety assessment before they were approved for release.'This considers all the risk factors that may arise in relation to health,' he added.