The UK government is working to change the law on gene-edited food, allowing it to be sold in the country for the first time, but major food retailers remain unenthusiastic
24 May 2022
The UK’s biggest supermarkets have reacted coolly to the idea of selling gene-edited food, with none willing to publicly say it will stock the new products despite an upcoming law change enabling the products to be sold in the country for the first time.
Tomorrow, the UK government will begin the passage of a bill to allow gene-edited products to be treated differently to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with environment minister George Eustice saying food from gene-edited crops could be in shops next year. The technology is billed as a way to improve health – such as a vitamin D-enriched tomato unveiled yesterday – and reduce environmental impacts from farming.
However, when New Scientist contacted 11 of the UK’s biggest supermarkets to ask if they would stock gene-edited food after the bill becomes law, none responded to confirm it would embrace the products. Waitrose was the only one to offer a position on gene-edited food, saying in a statement: “We currently have no plans to use this technology.”
Seven of the chains didn’t respond at all: Aldi, Asda, Iceland, Lidl, Morrisons, M&S and Ocado. The Co-Op and Sainsbury’s both declined to comment, referring New Scientist to the industry trade body, the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Tesco is understood to be reviewing the law change to see how it will affect the supermarket.
Andrew Opie at the BRC initially responded to inquiries about the industry’s position on selling gene-edited food by saying there are merits to exploring the technology and it was supportive of the technology. Less than an hour later, the group issued a revised statement that suggested public support would be key to commercial uptake.
“This will all depend on customer acceptance for the technology and a thorough understanding of the economic and environmental impacts,” said Opie in the new statement. “Retailers are supportive of the technology and its potential to make a contribution to increased sustainability, security of food supply chains and support of British farmers, but consumers are key to driving any future demand for these products.”
Responses to a government consultation last year showed that 88 per cent of individuals and 64 per cent of businesses were opposed to changing the law to allow gene-edited food to be treated differently to GMOs, which can involve the use of DNA from other species. However, 74 per cent of a group of 80 people who took part in a government awareness workshop were willing to eat gene-edited food, compared with 30 per cent beforehand.
Gene-edited products won’t be labelled, despite government polling showing that most consumers want labels. There is no scientific method to detect gene-edited food, because the changes to a crop’s genome look no different to those that could be created by natural mutations using traditional plant breeding.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency will create a public register of gene-edited organisms, which supermarkets could consult if they wish to work with their supply chains and opt-out of stocking gene-edited product. It remains unclear how costly that would be.
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