|LUXEMBOURG - The European Union is expected to end soon a five-year ban on approvals of new genetically modified (GM) foods, paving the way for a biotech maize product to hit Europe\'s supermarket shelves.|
The EU\'s trade partners, including the United States, have pressured the bloc to remove the ban, but many consumers are wary.
The opportunity to end the ban came after a Monday meeting of the EU\'s 15 agriculture ministers failed to break a long-standing deadlock on whether to approve a maize variety known as Bt-11, marketed by Swiss agrochemicals giant Syngenta .
The European Commission now has the legal power to rubberstamp a request for imports of Bt-11, although there is no formal time limit for the EU executive to act. Bt-11 maize would be for consumption from the can, not for growing in Europe\'s fields.
\"We\'re now in business. The laws are in place and we can do this (authorize Bt-11) in such a way that consumers are protected,\" EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said.
\"It is therefore logical that we move ahead with pending authorizations,\" he told a news conference, adding that approval was likely in the next two months.
\"It\'s difficult to predict exactly but I would imagine this will be before the Commission in late May or early June,\" Byrne said. \"I don\'t expect any opposition.\"
The views of EU member states at the farm ministers\' meeting were largely unchanged from a previous meeting on Bt-11 in December.
Two countries surprised observers by altering their positions: Italy, a known GM-skeptic, voted in favor, while Spain - which had previously backed an approval - abstained.
The last EU approval of any GM product was in October 1998 for a type of carnation. The last food product, a type of maize, was approved in April that year.
Syngenta welcomed the outcome of the ministers\' meeting.
\"We\'re looking forward to the EU process progressing in the interests of consumer choice and technological innovation,\" said Michael Stopford, Syngenta \'s head of public affairs. \"Of course, we\'re thoroughly convinced our product is safe,\" he told Reuters from Switzerland.
Six EU governments backed the proposal to authorize Bt-11: Ireland, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.
France, Austria, Greece, Portugal, Denmark and Luxembourg all voted against, while Belgium, Spain and Germany abstained.
RIFTS OVER BIOTECH FOOD
The ending of the biotech ban is likely to be welcomed by the EU\'s top trading partners, such as the United States which, along with Argentina and Canada, has challenged the EU ban at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
But environmental groups oppose the lifting of the ban, citing safety concerns. Polls have also shown that most consumers are opposed to biotech foods in Europe - public opposition to GM produce is estimated at more than 70 percent.
\"The Commission is politically isolated. They don\'t have the support of the population, which is overwhelmingly against GM food and they lack the support of a majority of member states,\" Friends of the Earth spokesman Geert Ritsema told Reuters.
The ban was triggered when a handful of EU countries said in 1998 they would refuse new GM authorizations until there were stricter laws on testing and labeling. U.S. farmers say the EU moratorium costs them millions of dollars a year in lost sales.
But the real battle for EU biotech policy, diplomats say, is when the bloc gives a green light to plant live GM crops. That will be the acid test of whether the moratorium is really over.
Story by Jeremy Smith
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE