August 3, 2000
BRUSSELS, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Novartis, one of the world's largest providers of seeds for growing genetically modified (GM) food, confirmed on Thursday that it has made its own food products GM-free.
The Swiss agribusiness and pharmaceuticals giant which is at the forefront of GM crop technology banned genetically modified ingredients from all its food brands worldwide from the end of June this year.
The policy was revealed in a letter the company sent to the Belgian office of Greenpeace in an attempt to get the environmental group to include Novartis on its list of GM-free food producers.
Novartis said it was aiming to guarantee all its foods -- mostly health foods such as cereal bars -- were free of GM ingredients because of pressure from consumers. Many consumers across Europe are distrustful of transgenic foods.
"With the current sentiment among the population towards GMOs, we have decided to take all necessary practical measures to avoid using genetically modifed organisms in our products worldwide," Novartis said in its letter.
A spokesman for Novartis confirmed the company's consumer health division had opted last summer gradually to phase out GM ingredients from its food lines.
The Novartis policy even goes as far as demanding certificates from its ingredient suppliers stating their products are GM-free.
"Consumer health, being in a consumer-driven market, has to deliver what consumers want. We have to respond to the changing needs of the various markets," the spokesman said.
Asked if Novartis' anti-GM stance conflicted with its position as a vociferous promoter of GM seeds, the spokesman said: "That's a totally different question."
"All our business centres operate independently in totally different markets. The market for seeds is totally different from the market for food products," he said.
Growing consumer concern
Genetically modified food -- made from plants whose gene sequence has been scientifically altered to give qualities such as resistance to pesticides -- has caused increasing concern among consumers and environmentalists who fear the new technology could pose a threat to human health or nature.
European Union governments have become so sensitive to the issue that they have refused to grant any new authorisations for GM crops for the last two years.
Among the crops currently languishing in the EU's stalled authorisation procedure is a Novartis GM maize.
The Novartis spokesman pointed out that the firm was about to spin off its agribusiness unit into a joint venture with AstraZeneca.
The move would clearly separate the company that makes GMOs from the firm that bans them from its food products.
However, this did not mean Novartis was turning its back on biotechnology, which would continue to be important for its pharmaceutical division, the spokesman said.
"We are convinced that GM plants provide advantages to farmers and processors and will offer clear benefits to consumers in the future," he said.
Novartis is not the first biotechnology company to be accused of double standards on GMOs, as Greenpeace has done in this case.
In December last year, U.S. rival Monsanto PHA.N was embarrassed by press reports that it had banned GM foods from its own staff canteen run by an independent caterer at one of its British offices.
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Last Updated on 8/5/00
By Dan Ellis