LONDON (CNNfn) - The European Union virtually closed the door on new genetically modified crops Friday in a move that could escalate its battle with the United States over hormone-treated beef and other altered products.
However, European nations remain split over the introduction of existing products, including genetically modified tomatoes and cotton, and the timing of a new legal framework governing the assessment of future products.
After an all-night meeting, EU environment ministers agreed to introduce stricter guidelines for the approval of new modified crops, but these are likely to be applied in at least three different ways.
Moreover, Germany's environment minister Jurgen Trittin suggested that a replacement to Article 92(20)k, the law governing food safety, may not appear until 2002. The debate has been heightened by recent food scares involving dairy products and Coca-Cola.
Despite calls from one group of nations, ministers were told there is no legal basis for introducing an official moratorium on all genetically modified-related applications and field trials.
Genetic modification pioneers such as Monsanto and Xeneca gave a cautious welcome to the latest development but said political splits could leave consumers in the dark. "It is a good thing that they agreed on a way forward," said one industry official who declined to be named when interviewed by CNNfn.com. "What's a little bit confusing is the status of pending authorizations."
The EU hasn't authorized any new genetically modified products since April 1998 because of squabbles over who is the competent authority and potential risks to consumers.
Splits over the scientific analysis of genetically modified products have been at the center of the trade storm between the EU and the United States over U.S. beef exports.
The new guidelines call for all genetically modified products to be licensed for an initial 10-year period, said a Commission official. Ministers dropped plans for a twin-track process with "low-risk" products given faster authorization.
Ministers also agreed to introduce a more rigorous risk assessment of products and seek to improve consumer confidence with better labeling and tracking of genetically modified products from the development stage to the marketplace.
The guidelines also clarify the position of liability for any future claims related to pollution of the environment by genetically modified products.
However, the key question for officials in the genetic modification industry is what individual nations do next. One group -- France, Italy, Greece and Luxembourg -- called for all new authorizations for planting and marketing of genetically modified products to be suspended pending "a more rigorous and transparent [regulatory] framework" in a bid to "restore the trust of the market".
A second group -- Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Finland -- called for moves to accelerate a new law and tightening labeling and product tracing rules.